house seriously, as natural places of residence. She pleased Kennicott
by being friendly with the complacent maturity of Mrs. Clark and Mrs.
Elder, and when she had often enough been in conference upon the Elders'
new Cadillac car, or the job which the oldest Clark boy had taken in
the office of the flour-mill, these topics became important, things to
follow up day by day.
With nine-tenths of her emotion concentrated upon Hugh, she did not
criticize shops, streets, acquaintances . . . this year or two. She
hurried to Uncle Whittier's store for a package of corn-flakes, she
abstractedly listened to Uncle Whittier's denunciation of Martin
Mahoney for asserting that the wind last Tuesday had been south and not
southwest, she came back along streets that held no surprises nor the
startling faces of strangers. Thinking of Hugh's teething all the way,
she did not reflect that this store, these drab blocks, made up all her
background. She did her work, and she triumphed over winning from the
Clarks at five hundred.
The most considerable event of the two years after the birth of Hugh
occurred when Vida Sherwin resigned from the high school and was
married. Carol was her attendant, and as the wedding was at the
Episcopal Church, all the women wore new kid slippers and long white kid
gloves, and looked refined.
For years Carol had been little sister to Vida, and had never in the
least known to what degree Vida loved her and hated her and in curious
strained ways was bound to her.
GRAY steel that seems unmoving because it spins so fast in the balanced
fly-wheel, gray snow in an avenue of elms, gray dawn with the sun behind
it--this was the gray of Vida Sherwin's life at thirty-six.
She was small and active and sallow; her yellow hair was faded, and
looked dry; her blue silk blouses and modest lace collars and high black
shoes and sailor hats were as literal and uncharming as a schoolroom
desk; but her eyes determined her appearance, revealed her as a
personage and a force, indicated her faith in the goodness and purpose
of everything. They were blue, and they were never still; they expressed
amusement, pity, enthusiasm. If she had been seen in sleep, with the
wrinkles beside her eyes stilled and the creased lids hiding the radiant
irises, she would have lost her potency.
She was born in a hill-smothered Wisconsin village where her father
was a prosy minister; she labored through a sanctimonious college; she
taught for two years in an iron-range town of blurry-faced Tatars and
Montenegrins, and wastes of ore, and when she came to Gopher Prairie,
its trees and the shining spaciousness of the wheat prairie made her
certain that she was in paradise.
She admitted to her fellow-teachers that the schoolbuilding was
slightly damp, but she insisted that the rooms were "arranged so
conveniently--and then that bust of President McKinley at the head of
the stairs, it's a lovely art-work, and isn't it an inspiration to have
the brave, honest, martyr president to think about!" She taught French,
English, and history, and the Sophomore Latin class, which dealt in
matters of a metaphysical nature called Indirect Discourse and the
Ablative Absolute. Each year she was reconvinced that the pupils were
beginning to learn more quickly. She spent four winters in building up
the Debating Society, and when the debate really was lively one Friday
afternoon, and the speakers of pieces did not forget their lines, she
She lived an engrossed useful life, and seemed as cool and simple as an
apple. But secretly she was creeping among fears, longing, and guilt.
She knew what it was, but she dared not name it. She hated even the
sound of the word "sex." When she dreamed of being a woman of the harem,
with great white warm limbs, she awoke to shudder, defenseless in
the dusk of her room. She prayed to Jesus, always to the Son of God,
offering him the terrible power of her adoration, addressing him as the
eternal lover, growing passionate, exalted, large, as she contemplated
his splendor. Thus she mounted to endurance and surcease.
By day, rattling about in many activities, she was able to ridicule her
blazing nights of darkness. With spurious cheerfulness she announced
everywhere, "I guess I'm a born spinster," and "No one will ever marry
a plain schoolma'am like me," and "You men, great big noisy bothersome
creatures, we women wouldn't have you round the place, dirtying up nice
clean rooms, if it wasn't that you have to be petted and guided. We just
ought to say 'Scat!' to all of you!"
But when a man held her close at a dance, even when "Professor"
George Edwin Mott patted her hand paternally as they considered the
naughtinesses of Cy Bogart, she quivered, and reflected how superior she
was to have kept her virginity.
In the autumn of 1911, a year before Dr. Will Kennicott was married,
Vida was his partner at a five-hundred tournament. She was thirty-four
then; Kennicott about thirty-six. To her he was a superb, boyish,
diverting creature; all the heroic qualities in a manly magnificent
body. They had been helping the hostess to serve the Waldorf salad and
coffee and gingerbread. They were in the kitchen, side by side on a
bench, while the others ponderously supped in the room beyond.
Kennicott was masculine and experimental. He stroked Vida's hand, he put
his arm carelessly about her shoulder.
"Don't!" she said sharply.
"You're a cunning thing," he offered, patting the back of her shoulder
in an exploratory manner.
While she strained away, she longed to move nearer to him. He bent over,
looked at her knowingly. She glanced down at his left hand as it touched
her knee. She sprang up, started noisily and needlessly to wash the
dishes. He helped her. He was too lazy to adventure further--and too
used to women in his profession. She was grateful for the impersonality
of his talk. It enabled her to gain control. She knew that she had
skirted wild thoughts.
A month after, on a sleighing-party, under the buffalo robes in the
bob-sled, he whispered, "You pretend to be a grown-up schoolteacher, but
you're nothing but a kiddie." His arm was about her. She resisted.
"Don't you like the poor lonely bachelor?" he yammered in a fatuous way.
"No, I don't! You don't care for me in the least. You're just practising
"You're so mean! I'm terribly fond of you."
"I'm not of you. And I'm not going to let myself be fond of you,
He persistently drew her toward him. She clutched his arm. Then she
threw off the robe, climbed out of the sled, raced after it with Harry
Haydock. At the dance which followed the sleigh-ride Kennicott was
devoted to the watery prettiness of Maud Dyer, and Vida was noisily
interested in getting up a Virginia Reel. Without seeming to watch
Kennicott, she knew that he did not once look at her.
That was all of her first love-affair.
He gave no sign of remembering that he was "terribly fond." She waited
for him; she reveled in longing, and in a sense of guilt because she
longed. She told herself that she did not want part of him; unless he
gave her all his devotion she would never let him touch her; and when
she found that she was probably lying, she burned with scorn. She fought
it out in prayer. She knelt in a pink flannel nightgown, her thin hair
down her back, her forehead as full of horror as a mask of tragedy,
while she identified her love for the Son of God with her love for a
mortal, and wondered if any other woman had ever been so sacrilegious.
She wanted to be a nun and observe perpetual adoration. She bought a
rosary, but she had been so bitterly reared as a Protestant that she
could not bring herself to use it.
Yet none of her intimates in the school and in the boarding-house knew
of her abyss of passion. They said she was "so optimistic."
When she heard that Kennicott was to marry a girl, pretty, young, and
imposingly from the Cities, Vida despaired. She congratulated Kennicott;
carelessly ascertained from him the hour of marriage. At that hour,
sitting in her room, Vida pictured the wedding in St. Paul. Full of an
ecstasy which horrified her, she followed Kennicott and the girl who had
stolen her place, followed them to the train, through the evening, the
She was relieved when she had worked out a belief that she wasn't really
shameful, that there was a mystical relation between herself and Carol,
so that she was vicariously yet veritably with Kennicott, and had the
right to be.
She saw Carol during the first five minutes in Gopher Prairie. She
stared at the passing motor, at Kennicott and the girl beside him. In
that fog world of transference of emotion Vida had no normal jealousy
but a conviction that, since through Carol she had received Kennicott's
love, then Carol was a part of her, an astral self, a heightened and
more beloved self. She was glad of the girl's charm, of the smooth black
hair, the airy head and young shoulders. But she was suddenly angry.
Carol glanced at her for a quarter-second, but looked past her, at an
old roadside barn. If she had made the great sacrifice, at least she
expected gratitude and recognition, Vida raged, while her conscious
schoolroom mind fussily begged her to control this insanity.
During her first call half of her wanted to welcome a fellow reader of
books; the other half itched to find out whether Carol knew anything
about Kennicott's former interest in herself. She discovered that Carol
was not aware that he had ever touched another woman's hand. Carol was
an amusing, naive, curiously learned child. While Vida was most actively
describing the glories of the Thanatopsis, and complimenting this
librarian on her training as a worker, she was fancying that this girl
was the child born of herself and Kennicott; and out of that symbolizing
she had a comfort she had not known for months.
When she came home, after supper with the Kennicotts and Guy Pollock,
she had a sudden and rather pleasant backsliding from devotion. She
bustled into her room, she slammed her hat on the bed, and chattered, "I
don't CARE! I'm a lot like her--except a few years older. I'm light and
quick, too, and I can talk just as well as she can, and I'm sure----Men
are such fools. I'd be ten times as sweet to make love to as that dreamy
baby. And I AM as good-looking!"
But as she sat on the bed and stared at her thin thighs, defiance oozed
away. She mourned:
"No. I'm not. Dear God, how we fool ourselves! I pretend I'm
'spiritual.' I pretend my legs are graceful. They aren't. They're
skinny. Old-maidish. I hate it! I hate that impertinent young woman! A
selfish cat, taking his love for granted. . . . No, she's adorable. . . .
I don't think she ought to be so friendly with Guy Pollock."
For a year Vida loved Carol, longed to and did not pry into the details
of her relations with Kennicott, enjoyed her spirit of play as expressed
in childish tea-parties, and, with the mystic bond between them
forgotten, was healthily vexed by Carol's assumption that she was a
sociological messiah come to save Gopher Prairie. This last facet of
Vida's thought was the one which, after a year, was most often turned to
the light. In a testy way she brooded, "These people that want to change
everything all of a sudden without doing any work, make me tired! Here I
have to go and work for four years, picking out the pupils for
debates, and drilling them, and nagging at them to get them to look up
references, and begging them to choose their own subjects--four years,
to get up a couple of good debates! And she comes rushing in, and
expects in one year to change the whole town into a lollypop paradise
with everybody stopping everything else to grow tulips and drink tea.
And it's a comfy homey old town, too!"
She had such an outburst after each of Carol's campaigns--for better
Thanatopsis programs, for Shavian plays, for more human schools--but she
never betrayed herself, and always she was penitent.
Vida was, and always would be, a reformer, a liberal. She believed that
details could excitingly be altered, but that things-in-general were
comely and kind and immutable. Carol was, without understanding or
accepting it, a revolutionist, a radical, and therefore possessed of
"constructive ideas," which only the destroyer can have, since the
reformer believes that all the essential constructing has already been
done. After years of intimacy it was this unexpressed opposition more
than the fancied loss of Kennicott's love which held Vida irritably
But the birth of Hugh revived the transcendental emotion. She was
indignant that Carol should not be utterly fulfilled in having borne
Kennicott's child. She admitted that Carol seemed to have affection and
immaculate care for the baby, but she began to identify herself now with
Kennicott, and in this phase to feel that she had endured quite too much
from Carol's instability.
She recalled certain other women who had come from the Outside and had
not appreciated Gopher Prairie. She remembered the rector's wife who had
been chilly to callers and who was rumored throughout the town to
have said, "Re-ah-ly I cawn't endure this bucolic heartiness in the
responses." The woman was positively known to have worn handkerchiefs in
her bodice as padding--oh, the town had simply roared at her. Of course
the rector and she were got rid of in a few months.
Then there was the mysterious woman with the dyed hair and penciled
eyebrows, who wore tight English dresses, like basques, who smelled of
stale musk, who flirted with the men and got them to advance money
for her expenses in a lawsuit, who laughed at Vida's reading at a
school-entertainment, and went off owing a hotel-bill and the three
hundred dollars she had borrowed.
Vida insisted that she loved Carol, but with some satisfaction she
compared her to these traducers of the town.
Vida had enjoyed Raymie Wutherspoon's singing in the Episcopal choir;
she had thoroughly reviewed the weather with him at Methodist sociables
and in the Bon Ton. But she did not really know him till she moved to
Mrs. Gurrey's boarding-house. It was five years after her affair with
Kennicott. She was thirty-nine, Raymie perhaps a year younger.
She said to him, and sincerely, "My! You can do anything, with your
brains and tact and that heavenly voice. You were so good in 'The Girl
from Kankakee.' You made me feel terribly stupid. If you'd gone on the
stage, I believe you'd be just as good as anybody in Minneapolis. But
still, I'm not sorry you stuck to business. It's such a constructive
"Do you really think so?" yearned Raymie, across the apple-sauce.
It was the first time that either of them had found a dependable
intellectual companionship. They looked down on Willis Woodford the
bank-clerk, and his anxious babycentric wife, the silent Lyman Casses,
the slangy traveling man, and the rest of Mrs. Gurrey's unenlightened
guests. They sat opposite, and they sat late. They were exhilarated to
find that they agreed in confession of faith:
"People like Sam Clark and Harry Haydock aren't earnest about music and
pictures and eloquent sermons and really refined movies, but then, on
the other hand, people like Carol Kennicott put too much stress on all
this art. Folks ought to appreciate lovely things, but just the same,
they got to be practical and--they got to look at things in a practical
Smiling, passing each other the pressed-glass pickle-dish, seeing Mrs.
Gurrey's linty supper-cloth irradiated by the light of intimacy, Vida
and Raymie talked about Carol's rose-colored turban, Carol's sweetness,
Carol's new low shoes, Carol's erroneous theory that there was no need
of strict discipline in school, Carol's amiability in the Bon Ton,
Carol's flow of wild ideas, which, honestly, just simply made you
nervous trying to keep track of them.
About the lovely display of gents' shirts in the Bon Ton window as
dressed by Raymie, about Raymie's offertory last Sunday, the fact that
there weren't any of these new solos as nice as "Jerusalem the Golden,"
and the way Raymie stood up to Juanita Haydock when she came into the
store and tried to run things and he as much as told her that she was
so anxious to have folks think she was smart and bright that she
said things she didn't mean, and anyway, Raymie was running the
shoe-department, and if Juanita, or Harry either, didn't like the way he
ran things, they could go get another man.
About Vida's new jabot which made her look thirty-two (Vida's estimate)
or twenty-two (Raymie's estimate), Vida's plan to have the high-school
Debating Society give a playlet, and the difficulty of keeping the
younger boys well behaved on the playground when a big lubber like Cy
Bogart acted up so.
About the picture post-card which Mrs. Dawson had sent to Mrs. Cass from
Pasadena, showing roses growing right outdoors in February, the change
in time on No. 4, the reckless way Dr. Gould always drove his auto, the
reckless way almost all these people drove their autos, the fallacy of
supposing that these socialists could carry on a government for as much
as six months if they ever did have a chance to try out their theories,
and the crazy way in which Carol jumped from subject to subject.
Vida had once beheld Raymie as a thin man with spectacles, mournful
drawn-out face, and colorless stiff hair. Now she noted that his jaw was
square, that his long hands moved quickly and were bleached in a refined
manner, and that his trusting eyes indicated that he had "led a clean
life." She began to call him "Ray," and to bounce in defense of his
unselfishness and thoughtfulness every time Juanita Haydock or Rita
Gould giggled about him at the Jolly Seventeen.
On a Sunday afternoon of late autumn they walked down to Lake
Minniemashie. Ray said that he would like to see the ocean; it must be a
grand sight; it must be much grander than a lake, even a great big lake.
Vida had seen it, she stated modestly; she had seen it on a summer trip
to Cape Cod.
"Have you been clear to Cape Cod? Massachusetts? I knew you'd traveled,
but I never realized you'd been that far!"
Made taller and younger by his interest she poured out, "Oh my yes.
It was a wonderful trip. So many points of interest through
Massachusetts--historical. There's Lexington where we turned back
the redcoats, and Longfellow's home at Cambridge, and Cape Cod--just
everything--fishermen and whale-ships and sand-dunes and everything."
She wished that she had a little cane to carry. He broke off a willow
"My, you're strong!" she said.
"No, not very. I wish there was a Y. M. C. A. here, so I could take up
regular exercise. I used to think I could do pretty good acrobatics, if
I had a chance."
"I'm sure you could. You're unusually lithe, for a large man."
"Oh no, not so very. But I wish we had a Y. M. It would be dandy to have
lectures and everything, and I'd like to take a class in improving
the memory--I believe a fellow ought to go on educating himself and
improving his mind even if he is in business, don't you, Vida--I guess
I'm kind of fresh to call you 'Vida'!"
"I've been calling you 'Ray' for weeks!"
He wondered why she sounded tart.
He helped her down the bank to the edge of the lake but dropped her hand
abruptly, and as they sat on a willow log and he brushed her sleeve, he
delicately moved over and murmured, "Oh, excuse me--accident."
She stared at the mud-browned chilly water, the floating gray reeds.
"You look so thoughtful," he said.
She threw out her hands. "I am! Will you kindly tell me what's the use
of--anything! Oh, don't mind me. I'm a moody old hen. Tell me about your
plan for getting a partnership in the Bon Ton. I do think you're right:
Harry Haydock and that mean old Simons ought to give you one."
He hymned the old unhappy wars in which he had been Achilles and the
mellifluous Nestor, yet gone his righteous ways unheeded by the cruel
kings. . . . "Why, if I've told 'em once, I've told 'em a dozen times to
get in a side-line of light-weight pants for gents' summer wear, and of
course here they go and let a cheap kike like Rifkin beat them to it and
grab the trade right off 'em, and then Harry said--you know how Harry
is, maybe he don't mean to be grouchy, but he's such a sore-head----"
He gave her a hand to rise. "If you don't MIND. I think a fellow is
awful if a lady goes on a walk with him and she can't trust him and he
tries to flirt with her and all."
"I'm sure you're highly trustworthy!" she snapped, and she sprang up
without his aid. Then, smiling excessively, "Uh--don't you think Carol
sometimes fails to appreciate Dr. Will's ability?"
Ray habitually asked her about his window-trimming, the display of the
new shoes, the best music for the entertainment at the Eastern Star, and
(though he was recognized as a professional authority on what the town
called "gents' furnishings") about his own clothes. She persuaded him
not to wear the small bow ties which made him look like an elongated
Sunday School scholar. Once she burst out:
"Ray, I could shake you! Do you know you're too apologetic? You always
appreciate other people too much. You fuss over Carol Kennicott when she
has some crazy theory that we all ought to turn anarchists or live on
figs and nuts or something. And you listen when Harry Haydock tries to
show off and talk about turnovers and credits and things you know lots
better than he does. Look folks in the eye! Glare at 'em! Talk deep!
You're the smartest man in town, if you only knew it. You ARE!"
He could not believe it. He kept coming back to her for confirmation. He
practised glaring and talking deep, but he circuitously hinted to Vida
that when he had tried to look Harry Haydock in the eye, Harry had
inquired, "What's the matter with you, Raymie? Got a pain?" But
afterward Harry had asked about Kantbeatum socks in a manner which, Ray
felt, was somehow different from his former condescension.
They were sitting on the squat yellow satin settee in the boarding-house
parlor. As Ray reannounced that he simply wouldn't stand it many more