The Project Gutenberg ebook of Main Street, by Sinclair Lewis



Download 4.62 Mb.
Page15/44
Date conversion29.04.2016
Size4.62 Mb.
1   ...   11   12   13   14   15   16   17   18   ...   44

red and smooth as lacquer on a saki bowl.


She ran down the gravelly embankment, smiled at children gathering

flowers in a little basket, thrust a handful of the soft pasque flowers

into the bosom of her white blouse. Fields of springing wheat drew her

from the straight propriety of the railroad and she crawled through the

rusty barbed-wire fence. She followed a furrow between low wheat blades

and a field of rye which showed silver lights as it flowed before the

wind. She found a pasture by the lake. So sprinkled was the pasture with

rag-baby blossoms and the cottony herb of Indian tobacco that it spread

out like a rare old Persian carpet of cream and rose and delicate green.

Under her feet the rough grass made a pleasant crunching. Sweet winds

blew from the sunny lake beside her, and small waves sputtered on the

meadowy shore. She leaped a tiny creek bowered in pussy-willow buds. She

was nearing a frivolous grove of birch and poplar and wild plum trees.
The poplar foliage had the downiness of a Corot arbor; the green and

silver trunks were as candid as the birches, as slender and lustrous

as the limbs of a Pierrot. The cloudy white blossoms of the plum trees

filled the grove with a springtime mistiness which gave an illusion of

distance.
She ran into the wood, crying out for joy of freedom regained after

winter. Choke-cherry blossoms lured her from the outer sun-warmed spaces

to depths of green stillness, where a submarine light came through the

young leaves. She walked pensively along an abandoned road. She found a

moccasin-flower beside a lichen-covered log. At the end of the road she

saw the open acres--dipping rolling fields bright with wheat.


"I believe! The woodland gods still live! And out there, the great land.

It's beautiful as the mountains. What do I care for Thanatopsises?"


She came out on the prairie, spacious under an arch of boldly cut

clouds. Small pools glittered. Above a marsh red-winged blackbirds

chased a crow in a swift melodrama of the air. On a hill was silhouetted

a man following a drag. His horse bent its neck and plodded, content.


A path took her to the Corinth road, leading back to town. Dandelions

glowed in patches amidst the wild grass by the way. A stream golloped

through a concrete culvert beneath the road. She trudged in healthy

weariness.


A man in a bumping Ford rattled up beside her, hailed, "Give you a lift,

Mrs. Kennicott?"


"Thank you. It's awfully good of you, but I'm enjoying the walk."
"Great day, by golly. I seen some wheat that must of been five inches

high. Well, so long."


She hadn't the dimmest notion who he was, but his greeting warmed her.

This countryman gave her a companionship which she had never (whether

by her fault or theirs or neither) been able to find in the matrons and

commercial lords of the town.


Half a mile from town, in a hollow between hazelnut bushes and a brook,

she discovered a gipsy encampment: a covered wagon, a tent, a bunch of

pegged-out horses. A broad-shouldered man was squatted on his heels,

holding a frying-pan over a camp-fire. He looked toward her. He was

Miles Bjornstam.
"Well, well, what you doing out here?" he roared. "Come have a hunk o'

bacon. Pete! Hey, Pete!"


A tousled person came from behind the covered wagon.
"Pete, here's the one honest-to-God lady in my bum town. Come on, crawl

in and set a couple minutes, Mrs. Kennicott. I'm hiking off for all

summer."
The Red Swede staggered up, rubbed his cramped knees, lumbered to the

wire fence, held the strands apart for her. She unconsciously smiled at

him as she went through. Her skirt caught on a barb; he carefully freed

it.
Beside this man in blue flannel shirt, baggy khaki trousers, uneven

suspenders, and vile felt hat, she was small and exquisite.
The surly Pete set out an upturned bucket for her. She lounged on it,

her elbows on her knees. "Where are you going?" she asked.


"Just starting off for the summer, horse-trading." Bjornstam chuckled.

His red mustache caught the sun. "Regular hoboes and public benefactors

we are. Take a hike like this every once in a while. Sharks on horses.

Buy 'em from farmers and sell 'em to others. We're honest--frequently.

Great time. Camp along the road. I was wishing I had a chance to say

good-by to you before I ducked out but----Say, you better come along

with us."
"I'd like to."
"While you're playing mumblety-peg with Mrs. Lym Cass, Pete and me

will be rambling across Dakota, through the Bad Lands, into the butte

country, and when fall comes, we'll be crossing over a pass of the Big

Horn Mountains, maybe, and camp in a snow-storm, quarter of a mile right

straight up above a lake. Then in the morning we'll lie snug in our

blankets and look up through the pines at an eagle. How'd it strike you?

Heh? Eagle soaring and soaring all day--big wide sky----"
"Don't! Or I will go with you, and I'm afraid there might be some slight

scandal. Perhaps some day I'll do it. Good-by."


Her hand disappeared in his blackened leather glove. From the turn in

the road she waved at him. She walked on more soberly now, and she was

lonely.
But the wheat and grass were sleek velvet under the sunset; the prairie

clouds were tawny gold; and she swung happily into Main Street.


II

Through the first days of June she drove with Kennicott on his calls.



She identified him with the virile land; she admired him as she saw with

what respect the farmers obeyed him. She was out in the early chill,

after a hasty cup of coffee, reaching open country as the fresh sun came

up in that unspoiled world. Meadow larks called from the tops of thin

split fence-posts. The wild roses smelled clean.
As they returned in late afternoon the low sun was a solemnity of radial

bands, like a heavenly fan of beaten gold; the limitless circle of the

grain was a green sea rimmed with fog, and the willow wind-breaks were

palmy isles.


Before July the close heat blanketed them. The tortured earth cracked.

Farmers panted through corn-fields behind cultivators and the sweating

flanks of horses. While she waited for Kennicott in the car, before a

farmhouse, the seat burned her fingers and her head ached with the glare

on fenders and hood.
A black thunder-shower was followed by a dust storm which turned the

sky yellow with the hint of a coming tornado. Impalpable black dust

far-borne from Dakota covered the inner sills of the closed windows.
The July heat was ever more stifling. They crawled along Main Street by

day; they found it hard to sleep at night. They brought mattresses down

to the living-room, and thrashed and turned by the open window. Ten

times a night they talked of going out to soak themselves with the

hose and wade through the dew, but they were too listless to take the

trouble. On cool evenings, when they tried to go walking, the gnats

appeared in swarms which peppered their faces and caught in their

throats.
She wanted the Northern pines, the Eastern sea, but Kennicott declared

that it would be "kind of hard to get away, just NOW." The Health and

Improvement Committee of the Thanatopsis asked her to take part in the

anti-fly campaign, and she toiled about town persuading householders to

use the fly-traps furnished by the club, or giving out money prizes to

fly-swatting children. She was loyal enough but not ardent, and without

ever quite intending to, she began to neglect the task as heat sucked at

her strength.
Kennicott and she motored North and spent a week with his mother--that

is, Carol spent it with his mother, while he fished for bass.


The great event was their purchase of a summer cottage, down on Lake

Minniemashie.


Perhaps the most amiable feature of life in Gopher Prairie was the

summer cottages. They were merely two-room shanties, with a seepage of

broken-down chairs, peeling veneered tables, chromos pasted on wooden

walls, and inefficient kerosene stoves. They were so thin-walled and so

close together that you could--and did--hear a baby being spanked in the

fifth cottage off. But they were set among elms and lindens on a bluff

which looked across the lake to fields of ripened wheat sloping up to

green woods.


Here the matrons forgot social jealousies, and sat gossiping in gingham;

or, in old bathing-suits, surrounded by hysterical children, they

paddled for hours. Carol joined them; she ducked shrieking small boys,

and helped babies construct sand-basins for unfortunate minnows.

She liked Juanita Haydock and Maud Dyer when she helped them make

picnic-supper for the men, who came motoring out from town each evening.

She was easier and more natural with them. In the debate as to whether

there should be veal loaf or poached egg on hash, she had no chance to

be heretical and oversensitive.
They danced sometimes, in the evening; they had a minstrel show, with

Kennicott surprisingly good as end-man; always they were encircled by

children wise in the lore of woodchucks and gophers and rafts and willow

whistles.


If they could have continued this normal barbaric life Carol would have

been the most enthusiastic citizen of Gopher Prairie. She was relieved

to be assured that she did not want bookish conversation alone; that she

did not expect the town to become a Bohemia. She was content now. She

did not criticize.
But in September, when the year was at its richest, custom dictated that

it was time to return to town; to remove the children from the waste

occupation of learning the earth, and send them back to lessons about

the number of potatoes which (in a delightful world untroubled by

commission-houses or shortages in freight-cars) William sold to John.

The women who had cheerfully gone bathing all summer looked doubtful

when Carol begged, "Let's keep up an outdoor life this winter, let's

slide and skate." Their hearts shut again till spring, and the nine

months of cliques and radiators and dainty refreshments began all over.

III


Carol had started a salon.
Since Kennicott, Vida Sherwin, and Guy Pollock were her only lions,

and since Kennicott would have preferred Sam Clark to all the poets and

radicals in the entire world, her private and self-defensive clique did

not get beyond one evening dinner for Vida and Guy, on her first wedding

anniversary; and that dinner did not get beyond a controversy regarding

Raymie Wutherspoon's yearnings.


Guy Pollock was the gentlest person she had found here. He spoke of her

new jade and cream frock naturally, not jocosely; he held her chair

for her as they sat down to dinner; and he did not, like Kennicott,

interrupt her to shout, "Oh say, speaking of that, I heard a good story

today." But Guy was incurably hermit. He sat late and talked hard, and

did not come again.


Then she met Champ Perry in the post-office--and decided that in the

history of the pioneers was the panacea for Gopher Prairie, for all

of America. We have lost their sturdiness, she told herself. We must

restore the last of the veterans to power and follow them on the

backward path to the integrity of Lincoln, to the gaiety of settlers

dancing in a saw-mill.


She read in the records of the Minnesota Territorial Pioneers that only

sixty years ago, not so far back as the birth of her own father, four

cabins had composed Gopher Prairie. The log stockade which Mrs. Champ

Perry was to find when she trekked in was built afterward by the

soldiers as a defense against the Sioux. The four cabins were inhabited

by Maine Yankees who had come up the Mississippi to St. Paul and driven

north over virgin prairie into virgin woods. They ground their own

corn; the men-folks shot ducks and pigeons and prairie chickens; the

new breakings yielded the turnip-like rutabagas, which they ate raw

and boiled and baked and raw again. For treat they had wild plums and

crab-apples and tiny wild strawberries.
Grasshoppers came darkening the sky, and in an hour ate the farmwife's

garden and the farmer's coat. Precious horses painfully brought from

Illinois, were drowned in bogs or stampeded by the fear of blizzards.

Snow blew through the chinks of new-made cabins, and Eastern children,

with flowery muslin dresses, shivered all winter and in summer were red

and black with mosquito bites. Indians were everywhere; they camped in

dooryards, stalked into kitchens to demand doughnuts, came with rifles

across their backs into schoolhouses and begged to see the pictures

in the geographies. Packs of timber-wolves treed the children; and the

settlers found dens of rattle-snakes, killed fifty, a hundred, in a day.


Yet it was a buoyant life. Carol read enviously in the admirable

Minnesota chronicles called "Old Rail Fence Corners" the reminiscence of

Mrs. Mahlon Black, who settled in Stillwater in 1848:
"There was nothing to parade over in those days. We took it as it came

and had happy lives. . . . We would all gather together and in about two

minutes would be having a good time--playing cards or dancing. . . . We

used to waltz and dance contra dances. None of these new jigs and not

wear any clothes to speak of. We covered our hides in those days; no

tight skirts like now. You could take three or four steps inside our

skirts and then not reach the edge. One of the boys would fiddle a while

and then some one would spell him and he could get a dance. Sometimes

they would dance and fiddle too."
She reflected that if she could not have ballrooms of gray and rose

and crystal, she wanted to be swinging across a puncheon-floor with a

dancing fiddler. This smug in-between town, which had exchanged "Money

Musk" for phonographs grinding out ragtime, it was neither the heroic

old nor the sophisticated new. Couldn't she somehow, some yet unimagined

how, turn it back to simplicity?


She herself knew two of the pioneers: the Perrys. Champ Perry was the

buyer at the grain-elevator. He weighed wagons of wheat on a rough

platform-scale, in the cracks of which the kernels sprouted every

spring. Between times he napped in the dusty peace of his office.


She called on the Perrys at their rooms above Howland & Gould's grocery.
When they were already old they had lost the money, which they had

invested in an elevator. They had given up their beloved yellow brick

house and moved into these rooms over a store, which were the Gopher

Prairie equivalent of a flat. A broad stairway led from the street

to the upper hall, along which were the doors of a lawyer's office, a

dentist's, a photographer's "studio," the lodge-rooms of the Affiliated

Order of Spartans and, at the back, the Perrys' apartment.
They received her (their first caller in a month) with aged fluttering

tenderness. Mrs. Perry confided, "My, it's a shame we got to entertain

you in such a cramped place. And there ain't any water except that ole

iron sink outside in the hall, but still, as I say to Champ, beggars

can't be choosers. 'Sides, the brick house was too big for me to sweep,

and it was way out, and it's nice to be living down here among folks.

Yes, we're glad to be here. But----Some day, maybe we can have a house

of our own again. We're saving up----Oh, dear, if we could have our own

home! But these rooms are real nice, ain't they!"
As old people will, the world over, they had moved as much as possible

of their familiar furniture into this small space. Carol had none of the

superiority she felt toward Mrs. Lyman Cass's plutocratic parlor. She

was at home here. She noted with tenderness all the makeshifts: the

darned chair-arms, the patent rocker covered with sleazy cretonne, the

pasted strips of paper mending the birch-bark napkin-rings labeled "Papa"

and "Mama."
She hinted of her new enthusiasm. To find one of the "young folks" who

took them seriously, heartened the Perrys, and she easily drew from

them the principles by which Gopher Prairie should be born again--should

again become amusing to live in.


This was their philosophy complete . . . in the era of aeroplanes and

syndicalism:


The Baptist Church (and, somewhat less, the Methodist, Congregational,

and Presbyterian Churches) is the perfect, the divinely ordained

standard in music, oratory, philanthropy, and ethics. "We don't need

all this new-fangled science, or this terrible Higher Criticism that's

ruining our young men in colleges. What we need is to get back to the

true Word of God, and a good sound belief in hell, like we used to have

it preached to us."
The Republican Party, the Grand Old Party of Blaine and McKinley, is the

agent of the Lord and of the Baptist Church in temporal affairs.


All socialists ought to be hanged.
"Harold Bell Wright is a lovely writer, and he teaches such good morals

in his novels, and folks say he's made prett' near a million dollars out

of 'em."
People who make more than ten thousand a year or less than eight hundred

are wicked.


Europeans are still wickeder.
It doesn't hurt any to drink a glass of beer on a warm day, but anybody

who touches wine is headed straight for hell.


Virgins are not so virginal as they used to be.
Nobody needs drug-store ice cream; pie is good enough for anybody.
The farmers want too much for their wheat.
The owners of the elevator-company expect too much for the salaries they

pay.
There would be no more trouble or discontent in the world if everybody

worked as hard as Pa did when he cleared our first farm.

IV

Carol's hero-worship dwindled to polite nodding, and the nodding



dwindled to a desire to escape, and she went home with a headache.
Next day she saw Miles Bjornstam on the street.
"Just back from Montana. Great summer. Pumped my lungs chuck-full of

Rocky Mountain air. Now for another whirl at sassing the bosses of

Gopher Prairie." She smiled at him, and the Perrys faded, the pioneers

faded, till they were but daguerreotypes in a black walnut cupboard.


CHAPTER XIII


SHE tried, more from loyalty than from desire, to call upon the Perrys

on a November evening when Kennicott was away. They were not at home.


Like a child who has no one to play with she loitered through the dark

hall. She saw a light under an office door. She knocked. To the person

who opened she murmured, "Do you happen to know where the Perrys are?"

She realized that it was Guy Pollock.


"I'm awfully sorry, Mrs. Kennicott, but I don't know. Won't you come in

and wait for them?"


"W-why----" she observed, as she reflected that in Gopher Prairie it

is not decent to call on a man; as she decided that no, really, she

wouldn't go in; and as she went in.
"I didn't know your office was up here."
"Yes, office, town-house, and chateau in Picardy. But you can't see

the chateau and town-house (next to the Duke of Sutherland's). They're

beyond that inner door. They are a cot and a wash-stand and my other

suit and the blue crepe tie you said you liked."


"You remember my saying that?"
"Of course. I always shall. Please try this chair."
She glanced about the rusty office--gaunt stove, shelves of tan

law-books, desk-chair filled with newspapers so long sat upon that they

were in holes and smudged to grayness. There were only two things which

suggested Guy Pollock. On the green felt of the table-desk, between

legal blanks and a clotted inkwell, was a cloissone vase. On a swing

shelf was a row of books unfamiliar to Gopher Prairie: Mosher editions

of the poets, black and red German novels, a Charles Lamb in crushed

levant.
Guy did not sit down. He quartered the office, a grayhound on the scent;

a grayhound with glasses tilted forward on his thin nose, and a silky

indecisive brown mustache. He had a golf jacket of jersey, worn through

at the creases in the sleeves. She noted that he did not apologize for

it, as Kennicott would have done.


He made conversation: "I didn't know you were a bosom friend of the

Perrys. Champ is the salt of the earth but somehow I can't imagine him

joining you in symbolic dancing, or making improvements on the Diesel

engine."
"No. He's a dear soul, bless him, but he belongs in the National Museum,

along with General Grant's sword, and I'm----Oh, I suppose I'm seeking

for a gospel that will evangelize Gopher Prairie."


"Really? Evangelize it to what?"
"To anything that's definite. Seriousness or frivolousness or both. I

wouldn't care whether it was a laboratory or a carnival. But it's merely

safe. Tell me, Mr. Pollock, what is the matter with Gopher Prairie?"
"Is anything the matter with it? Isn't there perhaps something the

matter with you and me? (May I join you in the honor of having something

the matter?)"
"(Yes, thanks.) No, I think it's the town."
"Because they enjoy skating more than biology?"
"But I'm not only more interested in biology than the Jolly Seventeen,

but also in skating! I'll skate with them, or slide, or throw snowballs,

just as gladly as talk with you."
("Oh no!")
("Yes!) But they want to stay home and embroider."
"Perhaps. I'm not defending the town. It's merely----I'm a confirmed

doubter of myself. (Probably I'm conceited about my lack of conceit!)

Anyway, Gopher Prairie isn't particularly bad. It's like all villages in

all countries. Most places that have lost the smell of earth but not

yet acquired the smell of patchouli--or of factory-smoke--are just as

suspicious and righteous. I wonder if the small town isn't, with some

lovely exceptions, a social appendix? Some day these dull market-towns

may be as obsolete as monasteries. I can imagine the farmer and his

local store-manager going by monorail, at the end of the day, into a

city more charming than any William Morris Utopia--music, a university,

clubs for loafers like me. (Lord, how I'd like to have a real club!)"
She asked impulsively, "You, why do you stay here?"
"I have the Village Virus."
"It sounds dangerous."
"It is. More dangerous than the cancer that will certainly get me

at fifty unless I stop this smoking. The Village Virus is the germ

which--it's extraordinarily like the hook-worm--it infects ambitious

people who stay too long in the provinces. You'll find it epidemic among

lawyers and doctors and ministers and college-bred merchants--all these

people who have had a glimpse of the world that thinks and laughs,

1   ...   11   12   13   14   15   16   17   18   ...   44


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

    Main page