The Project Gutenberg ebook of Main Street, by Sinclair Lewis



Download 4.62 Mb.
Page12/44
Date conversion29.04.2016
Size4.62 Mb.
1   ...   8   9   10   11   12   13   14   15   ...   44
"My name 's Bjornstam. 'The Red Swede' they call me. Remember? Always

thought I'd kind of like to say howdy to you again."


"Ye--yes----I've been exploring the outskirts of town."
"Yump. Fine mess. No sewage, no street cleaning, and the Lutheran

minister and the priest represent the arts and sciences. Well, thunder,

we submerged tenth down here in Swede Hollow are no worse off than you

folks. Thank God, we don't have to go and purr at Juanity Haydock at the

Jolly Old Seventeen."
The Carol who regarded herself as completely adaptable was uncomfortable

at being chosen as comrade by a pipe-reeking odd-job man. Probably he

was one of her husband's patients. But she must keep her dignity.
"Yes, even the Jolly Seventeen isn't always so exciting. It's very cold

again today, isn't it. Well----"


Bjornstam was not respectfully valedictory. He showed no signs of

pulling a forelock. His eyebrows moved as though they had a life of

their own. With a subgrin he went on:
"Maybe I hadn't ought to talk about Mrs. Haydock and her Solemcholy

Seventeen in that fresh way. I suppose I'd be tickled to death if I was

invited to sit in with that gang. I'm what they call a pariah, I guess.

I'm the town badman, Mrs. Kennicott: town atheist, and I suppose I must

be an anarchist, too. Everybody who doesn't love the bankers and the

Grand Old Republican Party is an anarchist."


Carol had unconsciously slipped from her attitude of departure into an

attitude of listening, her face full toward him, her muff lowered. She

fumbled:
"Yes, I suppose so." Her own grudges came in a flood. "I don't see why

you shouldn't criticize the Jolly Seventeen if you want to. They aren't

sacred."
"Oh yes, they are! The dollar-sign has chased the crucifix clean off

the map. But then, I've got no kick. I do what I please, and I suppose I

ought to let them do the same."
"What do you mean by saying you're a pariah?"
"I'm poor, and yet I don't decently envy the rich. I'm an old bach.

I make enough money for a stake, and then I sit around by myself, and

shake hands with myself, and have a smoke, and read history, and I don't

contribute to the wealth of Brother Elder or Daddy Cass."


"You----I fancy you read a good deal."
"Yep. In a hit-or-a-miss way. I'll tell you: I'm a lone wolf. I trade

horses, and saw wood, and work in lumber-camps--I'm a first-rate

swamper. Always wished I could go to college. Though I s'pose I'd find

it pretty slow, and they'd probably kick me out."


"You really are a curious person, Mr.----"
"Bjornstam. Miles Bjornstam. Half Yank and half Swede. Usually known as

'that damn lazy big-mouthed calamity-howler that ain't satisfied with

the way we run things.' No, I ain't curious--whatever you mean by

that! I'm just a bookworm. Probably too much reading for the amount

of digestion I've got. Probably half-baked. I'm going to get in

'half-baked' first, and beat you to it, because it's dead sure to be

handed to a radical that wears jeans!"
They grinned together. She demanded:
"You say that the Jolly Seventeen is stupid. What makes you think so?"
"Oh, trust us borers into the foundation to know about your leisure

class. Fact, Mrs. Kennicott, I'll say that far as I can make out, the

only people in this man's town that do have any brains--I don't mean

ledger-keeping brains or duck-hunting brains or baby-spanking brains,

but real imaginative brains--are you and me and Guy Pollock and the

foreman at the flour-mill. He's a socialist, the foreman. (Don't tell

Lym Cass that! Lym would fire a socialist quicker than he would a

horse-thief!)"


"Indeed no, I sha'n't tell him."
"This foreman and I have some great set-to's. He's a regular old-line

party-member. Too dogmatic. Expects to reform everything from

deforestration to nosebleed by saying phrases like 'surplus value.'

Like reading the prayer-book. But same time, he's a Plato J. Aristotle

compared with people like Ezry Stowbody or Professor Mott or Julius

Flickerbaugh."


"It's interesting to hear about him."
He dug his toe into a drift, like a schoolboy. "Rats. You mean I talk

too much. Well, I do, when I get hold of somebody like you. You probably

want to run along and keep your nose from freezing."
"Yes, I must go, I suppose. But tell me: Why did you leave Miss Sherwin,

of the high school, out of your list of the town intelligentsia?"


"I guess maybe she does belong in it. From all I can hear she's in

everything and behind everything that looks like a reform--lot more

than most folks realize. She lets Mrs. Reverend Warren, the president

of this-here Thanatopsis Club, think she's running the works, but Miss

Sherwin is the secret boss, and nags all the easy-going dames into doing

something. But way I figure it out----You see, I'm not interested in

these dinky reforms. Miss Sherwin's trying to repair the holes in this

barnacle-covered ship of a town by keeping busy bailing out the water.

And Pollock tries to repair it by reading poetry to the crew! Me, I want

to yank it up on the ways, and fire the poor bum of a shoemaker that

built it so it sails crooked, and have it rebuilt right, from the keel

up."
"Yes--that--that would be better. But I must run home. My poor nose is

nearly frozen."
"Say, you better come in and get warm, and see what an old bach's shack

is like."


She looked doubtfully at him, at the low shanty, the yard that was

littered with cord-wood, moldy planks, a hoopless wash-tub. She was

disquieted, but Bjornstam did not give her the opportunity to be

delicate. He flung out his hand in a welcoming gesture which assumed

that she was her own counselor, that she was not a Respectable Married

Woman but fully a human being. With a shaky, "Well, just a moment, to

warm my nose," she glanced down the street to make sure that she was not

spied on, and bolted toward the shanty.


She remained for one hour, and never had she known a more considerate

host than the Red Swede.


He had but one room: bare pine floor, small work-bench, wall bunk with

amazingly neat bed, frying-pan and ash-stippled coffee-pot on the

shelf behind the pot-bellied cannon-ball stove, backwoods chairs--one

constructed from half a barrel, one from a tilted plank--and a row of

books incredibly assorted; Byron and Tennyson and Stevenson, a manual of

gas-engines, a book by Thorstein Veblen, and a spotty treatise on "The

Care, Feeding, Diseases, and Breeding of Poultry and Cattle."
There was but one picture--a magazine color-plate of a steep-roofed

village in the Harz Mountains which suggested kobolds and maidens with

golden hair.
Bjornstam did not fuss over her. He suggested, "Might throw open your

coat and put your feet up on the box in front of the stove." He tossed

his dogskin coat into the bunk, lowered himself into the barrel chair,

and droned on:


"Yeh, I'm probably a yahoo, but by gum I do keep my independence by

doing odd jobs, and that's more 'n these polite cusses like the clerks

in the banks do. When I'm rude to some slob, it may be partly because I

don't know better (and God knows I'm not no authority on trick forks

and what pants you wear with a Prince Albert), but mostly it's because I

mean something. I'm about the only man in Johnson County that remembers

the joker in the Declaration of Independence about Americans being

supposed to have the right to 'life, liberty, and the pursuit of

happiness.'
"I meet old Ezra Stowbody on the street. He looks at me like he wants me

to remember he's a highmuckamuck and worth two hundred thousand dollars,

and he says, 'Uh, Bjornquist----'
"'Bjornstam's my name, Ezra,' I says. HE knows my name, all rightee.
"'Well, whatever your name is,' he says, 'I understand you have a

gasoline saw. I want you to come around and saw up four cords of maple

for me,' he says.
"'So you like my looks, eh?' I says, kind of innocent.
"'What difference does that make? Want you to saw that wood before

Saturday,' he says, real sharp. Common workman going and getting fresh

with a fifth of a million dollars all walking around in a hand-me-down

fur coat!


"'Here's the difference it makes,' I says, just to devil him. 'How do

you know I like YOUR looks?' Maybe he didn't look sore! 'Nope,' I says,

thinking it all over, 'I don't like your application for a loan. Take it

to another bank, only there ain't any,' I says, and I walks off on him.


"Sure. Probably I was surly--and foolish. But I figured there had to be

ONE man in town independent enough to sass the banker!"


He hitched out of his chair, made coffee, gave Carol a cup, and talked

on, half defiant and half apologetic, half wistful for friendliness

and half amused by her surprise at the discovery that there was a

proletarian philosophy.


At the door, she hinted:
"Mr. Bjornstam, if you were I, would you worry when people thought you

were affected?"


"Huh? Kick 'em in the face! Say, if I were a sea-gull, and all over

silver, think I'd care what a pack of dirty seals thought about my

flying?"
It was not the wind at her back, it was the thrust of Bjornstam's scorn

which carried her through town. She faced Juanita Haydock, cocked

her head at Maud Dyer's brief nod, and came home to Bea radiant. She

telephoned Vida Sherwin to "run over this evening." She lustily played

Tschaikowsky--the virile chords an echo of the red laughing philosopher

of the tar-paper shack.


(When she hinted to Vida, "Isn't there a man here who amuses himself by

being irreverent to the village gods--Bjornstam, some such a name?"

the reform-leader said "Bjornstam? Oh yes. Fixes things. He's awfully

impertinent.")


IV

Kennicott had returned at midnight. At breakfast he said four several



times that he had missed her every moment.
On her way to market Sam Clark hailed her, "The top o' the mornin'

to yez! Going to stop and pass the time of day mit Sam'l? Warmer, eh?

What'd the doc's thermometer say it was? Say, you folks better come

round and visit with us, one of these evenings. Don't be so dog-gone

proud, staying by yourselves."
Champ Perry the pioneer, wheat-buyer at the elevator, stopped her in

the post-office, held her hand in his withered paws, peered at her

with faded eyes, and chuckled, "You are so fresh and blooming, my dear.

Mother was saying t'other day that a sight of you was better 'n a dose

of medicine."
In the Bon Ton Store she found Guy Pollock tentatively buying a modest

gray scarf. "We haven't seen you for so long," she said. "Wouldn't you

like to come in and play cribbage, some evening?" As though he meant it,

Pollock begged, "May I, really?"


While she was purchasing two yards of malines the vocal Raymie

Wutherspoon tiptoed up to her, his long sallow face bobbing, and he

besought, "You've just got to come back to my department and see a pair

of patent leather slippers I set aside for you."


In a manner of more than sacerdotal reverence he unlaced her boots,

tucked her skirt about her ankles, slid on the slippers. She took them.


"You're a good salesman," she said.
"I'm not a salesman at all! I just like elegant things. All this is so

inartistic." He indicated with a forlornly waving hand the shelves of

shoe-boxes, the seat of thin wood perforated in rosettes, the display of

shoe-trees and tin boxes of blacking, the lithograph of a smirking

young woman with cherry cheeks who proclaimed in the exalted poetry of

advertising, "My tootsies never got hep to what pedal perfection was

till I got a pair of clever classy Cleopatra Shoes."
"But sometimes," Raymie sighed, "there is a pair of dainty little shoes

like these, and I set them aside for some one who will appreciate. When

I saw these I said right away, 'Wouldn't it be nice if they fitted Mrs.

Kennicott,' and I meant to speak to you first chance I had. I haven't

forgotten our jolly talks at Mrs. Gurrey's!"
That evening Guy Pollock came in and, though Kennicott instantly

impressed him into a cribbage game, Carol was happy again.


V

She did not, in recovering something of her buoyancy, forget her



determination to begin the liberalizing of Gopher Prairie by the easy

and agreeable propaganda of teaching Kennicott to enjoy reading poetry

in the lamplight. The campaign was delayed. Twice he suggested that they

call on neighbors; once he was in the country. The fourth evening

he yawned pleasantly, stretched, and inquired, "Well, what'll we do

tonight? Shall we go to the movies?"


"I know exactly what we're going to do. Now don't ask questions! Come

and sit down by the table. There, are you comfy? Lean back and forget

you're a practical man, and listen to me."
It may be that she had been influenced by the managerial Vida Sherwin;

certainly she sounded as though she was selling culture. But she dropped

it when she sat on the couch, her chin in her hands, a volume of Yeats

on her knees, and read aloud.


Instantly she was released from the homely comfort of a prairie town.

She was in the world of lonely things--the flutter of twilight linnets,

the aching call of gulls along a shore to which the netted foam crept

out of darkness, the island of Aengus and the elder gods and the eternal

glories that never were, tall kings and women girdled with crusted gold,

the woful incessant chanting and the----


"Heh-cha-cha!" coughed Dr. Kennicott. She stopped. She remembered that

he was the sort of person who chewed tobacco. She glared, while he

uneasily petitioned, "That's great stuff. Study it in college? I

like poetry fine--James Whitcomb Riley and some of Longfellow--this

'Hiawatha.' Gosh, I wish I could appreciate that highbrow art stuff. But

I guess I'm too old a dog to learn new tricks."


With pity for his bewilderment, and a certain desire to giggle, she

consoled him, "Then let's try some Tennyson. You've read him?"


"Tennyson? You bet. Read him in school. There's that:
And let there be no (what is it?) of farewell

When I put out to sea,

But let the----
Well, I don't remember all of it but----Oh, sure! And there's that 'I

met a little country boy who----' I don't remember exactly how it goes,

but the chorus ends up, 'We are seven.'"
"Yes. Well----Shall we try 'The Idylls of the King?' They're so full of

color."
"Go to it. Shoot." But he hastened to shelter himself behind a cigar.


She was not transported to Camelot. She read with an eye cocked on him,

and when she saw how much he was suffering she ran to him, kissed his

forehead, cried, "You poor forced tube-rose that wants to be a decent

turnip!"
"Look here now, that ain't----"


"Anyway, I sha'n't torture you any longer."
She could not quite give up. She read Kipling, with a great deal of

emphasis:

There's a REGIMENT a-COMING down the GRAND Trunk ROAD.

He tapped his foot to the rhythm; he looked normal and reassured. But

when he complimented her, "That was fine. I don't know but what you

can elocute just as good as Ella Stowbody," she banged the book and

suggested that they were not too late for the nine o'clock show at the

movies.
That was her last effort to harvest the April wind, to teach divine

unhappiness by a correspondence course, to buy the lilies of Avalon and

the sunsets of Cockaigne in tin cans at Ole Jenson's Grocery.


But the fact is that at the motion-pictures she discovered herself

laughing as heartily as Kennicott at the humor of an actor who stuffed

spaghetti down a woman's evening frock. For a second she loathed her

laughter; mourned for the day when on her hill by the Mississippi

she had walked the battlements with queens. But the celebrated cinema

jester's conceit of dropping toads into a soup-plate flung her into

unwilling tittering, and the afterglow faded, the dead queens fled

through darkness.


VI

She went to the Jolly Seventeen's afternoon bridge. She had learned



the elements of the game from the Sam Clarks. She played quietly and

reasonably badly. She had no opinions on anything more polemic than

woolen union-suits, a topic on which Mrs. Howland discoursed for five

minutes. She smiled frequently, and was the complete canary-bird in her

manner of thanking the hostess, Mrs. Dave Dyer.
Her only anxious period was during the conference on husbands.
The young matrons discussed the intimacies of domesticity with a

frankness and a minuteness which dismayed Carol. Juanita Haydock

communicated Harry's method of shaving, and his interest in

deer-shooting. Mrs. Gougerling reported fully, and with some irritation,

her husband's inappreciation of liver and bacon. Maud Dyer chronicled

Dave's digestive disorders; quoted a recent bedtime controversy with

him in regard to Christian Science, socks and the sewing of buttons

upon vests; announced that she "simply wasn't going to stand his always

pawing girls when he went and got crazy-jealous if a man just danced

with her"; and rather more than sketched Dave's varieties of kisses.


So meekly did Carol give attention, so obviously was she at last

desirous of being one of them, that they looked on her fondly, and

encouraged her to give such details of her honeymoon as might be of

interest. She was embarrassed rather than resentful. She deliberately

misunderstood. She talked of Kennicott's overshoes and medical ideals

till they were thoroughly bored. They regarded her as agreeable but

green.
Till the end she labored to satisfy the inquisition. She bubbled at

Juanita, the president of the club, that she wanted to entertain them.

"Only," she said, "I don't know that I can give you any refreshments as

nice as Mrs. Dyer's salad, or that simply delicious angel's-food we had

at your house, dear."
"Fine! We need a hostess for the seventeenth of March. Wouldn't it be

awfully original if you made it a St. Patrick's Day bridge! I'll be

tickled to death to help you with it. I'm glad you've learned to play

bridge. At first I didn't hardly know if you were going to like Gopher

Prairie. Isn't it dandy that you've settled down to being homey with us!

Maybe we aren't as highbrow as the Cities, but we do have the daisiest

times and--oh, we go swimming in summer, and dances and--oh, lots of

good times. If folks will just take us as we are, I think we're a pretty

good bunch!"
"I'm sure of it. Thank you so much for the idea about having a St.

Patrick's Day bridge."


"Oh, that's nothing. I always think the Jolly Seventeen are so good at

original ideas. If you knew these other towns Wakamin and Joralemon and

all, you'd find out and realize that G. P. is the liveliest, smartest

town in the state. Did you know that Percy Bresnahan, the famous auto

manufacturer, came from here and----Yes, I think that a St. Patrick's

Day party would be awfully cunning and original, and yet not too queer

or freaky or anything."

CHAPTER XI


I
SHE had often been invited to the weekly meetings of the Thanatopsis,

the women's study club, but she had put it off. The Thanatopsis was,

Vida Sherwin promised, "such a cozy group, and yet it puts you in touch

with all the intellectual thoughts that are going on everywhere."


Early in March Mrs. Westlake, wife of the veteran physician, marched

into Carol's living-room like an amiable old pussy and suggested, "My

dear, you really must come to the Thanatopsis this afternoon. Mrs.

Dawson is going to be leader and the poor soul is frightened to death.

She wanted me to get you to come. She says she's sure you will brighten

up the meeting with your knowledge of books and writings. (English

poetry is our topic today.) So shoo! Put on your coat!"
"English poetry? Really? I'd love to go. I didn't realize you were

reading poetry."


"Oh, we're not so slow!"
Mrs. Luke Dawson, wife of the richest man in town, gaped at them

piteously when they appeared. Her expensive frock of beaver-colored

satin with rows, plasters, and pendants of solemn brown beads was

intended for a woman twice her size. She stood wringing her hands in

front of nineteen folding chairs, in her front parlor with its faded

photograph of Minnehaha Falls in 1890, its "colored enlargement" of

Mr. Dawson, its bulbous lamp painted with sepia cows and mountains and

standing on a mortuary marble column.


She creaked, "O Mrs. Kennicott, I'm in such a fix. I'm supposed to lead

the discussion, and I wondered would you come and help?"


"What poet do you take up today?" demanded Carol, in her library tone of

"What book do you wish to take out?"


"Why, the English ones."
"Not all of them?"
"W-why yes. We're learning all of European Literature this year.

The club gets such a nice magazine, Culture Hints, and we follow its

programs. Last year our subject was Men and Women of the Bible, and next

year we'll probably take up Furnishings and China. My, it does make a

body hustle to keep up with all these new culture subjects, but it is

improving. So will you help us with the discussion today?"


On her way over Carol had decided to use the Thanatopsis as the tool

with which to liberalize the town. She had immediately conceived

enormous enthusiasm; she had chanted, "These are the real people. When

the housewives, who bear the burdens, are interested in poetry, it means

something. I'll work with them--for them--anything!"
Her enthusiasm had become watery even before thirteen women resolutely

removed their overshoes, sat down meatily, ate peppermints, dusted their

fingers, folded their hands, composed their lower thoughts, and invited

the naked muse of poetry to deliver her most improving message. They had

greeted Carol affectionately, and she tried to be a daughter to them.

But she felt insecure. Her chair was out in the open, exposed to their

gaze, and it was a hard-slatted, quivery, slippery church-parlor chair,

likely to collapse publicly and without warning. It was impossible to

sit on it without folding the hands and listening piously.
She wanted to kick the chair and run. It would make a magnificent

clatter.
She saw that Vida Sherwin was watching her. She pinched her wrist, as

though she were a noisy child in church, and when she was decent and

cramped again, she listened.


Mrs. Dawson opened the meeting by sighing, "I'm sure I'm glad to see you

all here today, and I understand that the ladies have prepared a number

1   ...   8   9   10   11   12   13   14   15   ...   44


The database is protected by copyright ©essaydocs.org 2016
send message

    Main page