|They were in shirt sleeves; smoking, chewing, spitting incessantly;
lowering their voices for a moment so that she did not hear what they
said and afterward giggling hoarsely; using over and over the canonical
phrases: "Three to dole," "I raise you a finif," "Come on now, ante up;
what do you think this is, a pink tea?" The cigar-smoke was acrid and
pervasive. The firmness with which the men mouthed their cigars made the
lower part of their faces expressionless, heavy, unappealing. They were
like politicians cynically dividing appointments.
How could they understand her world?
Did that faint and delicate world exist? Was she a fool? She doubted her
world, doubted herself, and was sick in the acid, smoke-stained air.
She slipped back into brooding upon the habituality of the house.
Kennicott was as fixed in routine as an isolated old man. At first
he had amorously deceived himself into liking her experiments with
food--the one medium in which she could express imagination--but now
he wanted only his round of favorite dishes: steak, roast beef, boiled
pig's-feet, oatmeal, baked apples. Because at some more flexible period
he had advanced from oranges to grape-fruit he considered himself an
During their first autumn she had smiled over his affection for his
hunting-coat, but now that the leather had come unstitched in dribbles
of pale yellow thread, and tatters of canvas, smeared with dirt of the
fields and grease from gun-cleaning, hung in a border of rags, she hated
Wasn't her whole life like that hunting-coat?
She knew every nick and brown spot on each piece of the set of china
purchased by Kennicott's mother in 1895--discreet china with a pattern
of washed-out forget-me-nots, rimmed with blurred gold: the gravy-boat,
in a saucer which did not match, the solemn and evangelical covered
vegetable-dishes, the two platters.
Twenty times had Kennicott sighed over the fact that Bea had broken the
other platter--the medium-sized one.
Damp black iron sink, damp whitey-yellow drain-board with shreds of
discolored wood which from long scrubbing were as soft as cotton thread,
warped table, alarm clock, stove bravely blackened by Oscarina but an
abomination in its loose doors and broken drafts and oven that never
would keep an even heat.
Carol had done her best by the kitchen: painted it white, put up
curtains, replaced a six-year-old calendar by a color print. She had
hoped for tiling, and a kerosene range for summer cooking, but Kennicott
always postponed these expenses.
She was better acquainted with the utensils in the kitchen than with
Vida Sherwin or Guy Pollock. The can-opener, whose soft gray metal
handle was twisted from some ancient effort to pry open a window,
was more pertinent to her than all the cathedrals in Europe; and
more significant than the future of Asia was the never-settled weekly
question as to whether the small kitchen knife with the unpainted handle
or the second-best buckhorn carving-knife was better for cutting up cold
chicken for Sunday supper.
She was ignored by the males till midnight. Her husband called, "Suppose
we could have some eats, Carrie?" As she passed through the dining-room
the men smiled on her, belly-smiles. None of them noticed her while she
was serving the crackers and cheese and sardines and beer. They were
determining the exact psychology of Dave Dyer in standing pat, two hours
When they were gone she said to Kennicott, "Your friends have the
manners of a barroom. They expect me to wait on them like a servant.
They're not so much interested in me as they would be in a waiter,
because they don't have to tip me. Unfortunately! Well, good night."
So rarely did she nag in this petty, hot-weather fashion that he was
astonished rather than angry. "Hey! Wait! What's the idea? I must say
I don't get you. The boys----Barroom? Why, Perce Bresnahan was saying
there isn't a finer bunch of royal good fellows anywhere than just the
crowd that were here tonight!"
They stood in the lower hall. He was too shocked to go on with his
duties of locking the front door and winding his watch and the clock.
"Bresnahan! I'm sick of him!" She meant nothing in particular.
"Why, Carrie, he's one of the biggest men in the country! Boston just
eats out of his hand!"
"I wonder if it does? How do we know but that in Boston, among well-bred
people, he may be regarded as an absolute lout? The way he calls women
'Sister,' and the way----"
"Now look here! That'll do! Of course I know you don't mean it--you're
simply hot and tired, and trying to work off your peeve on me. But just
the same, I won't stand your jumping on Perce. You----It's just like
your attitude toward the war--so darn afraid that America will become
"But you are the pure patriot!"
"By God, I am!"
"Yes, I heard you talking to Sam Clark tonight about ways of avoiding
the income tax!"
He had recovered enough to lock the door; he clumped up-stairs ahead of
her, growling, "You don't know what you're talking about. I'm perfectly
willing to pay my full tax--fact, I'm in favor of the income tax--even
though I do think it's a penalty on frugality and enterprise--fact, it's
an unjust, darn-fool tax. But just the same, I'll pay it. Only, I'm not
idiot enough to pay more than the government makes me pay, and Sam and
I were just figuring out whether all automobile expenses oughn't to be
exemptions. I'll take a lot off you, Carrie, but I don't propose for one
second to stand your saying I'm not patriotic. You know mighty well and
good that I've tried to get away and join the army. And at the beginning
of the whole fracas I said--I've said right along--that we ought to have
entered the war the minute Germany invaded Belgium. You don't get me at
all. You can't appreciate a man's work. You're abnormal. You've
fussed so much with these fool novels and books and all this highbrow
junk----You like to argue!"
It ended, a quarter of an hour later, in his calling her a "neurotic"
before he turned away and pretended to sleep.
For the first time they had failed to make peace.
"There are two races of people, only two, and they live side by
side. His calls mine 'neurotic'; mine calls his 'stupid.' We'll never
understand each other, never; and it's madness for us to debate--to lie
together in a hot bed in a creepy room--enemies, yoked."
It clarified in her the longing for a place of her own.
"While it's so hot, I think I'll sleep in the spare room," she said next
"Not a bad idea." He was cheerful and kindly.
The room was filled with a lumbering double bed and a cheap pine bureau.
She stored the bed in the attic; replaced it by a cot which, with a
denim cover, made a couch by day; put in a dressing-table, a rocker
transformed by a cretonne cover; had Miles Bjornstam build book-shelves.
Kennicott slowly understood that she meant to keep up her seclusion. In
his queries, "Changing the whole room?" "Putting your books in there?"
she caught his dismay. But it was so easy, once her door was closed, to
shut out his worry. That hurt her--the ease of forgetting him.
Aunt Bessie Smail sleuthed out this anarchy. She yammered, "Why, Carrie,
you ain't going to sleep all alone by yourself? I don't believe in that.
Married folks should have the same room, of course! Don't go getting
silly notions. No telling what a thing like that might lead to. Suppose
I up and told your Uncle Whit that I wanted a room of my own!"
Carol spoke of recipes for corn-pudding.
But from Mrs. Dr. Westlake she drew encouragement. She had made an
afternoon call on Mrs. Westlake. She was for the first time invited
up-stairs, and found the suave old woman sewing in a white and mahogany
room with a small bed.
"Oh, do you have your own royal apartments, and the doctor his?" Carol
"Indeed I do! The doctor says it's bad enough to have to stand my temper
at meals. Do----" Mrs. Westlake looked at her sharply. "Why, don't you
do the same thing?"
"I've been thinking about it." Carol laughed in an embarrassed way.
"Then you wouldn't regard me as a complete hussy if I wanted to be by
myself now and then?"
"Why, child, every woman ought to get off by herself and turn over her
thoughts--about children, and God, and how bad her complexion is, and
the way men don't really understand her, and how much work she finds to
do in the house, and how much patience it takes to endure some things in
a man's love."
"Yes!" Carol said it in a gasp, her hands twisted together. She wanted
to confess not only her hatred for the Aunt Bessies but her covert
irritation toward those she best loved: her alienation from Kennicott,
her disappointment in Guy Pollock, her uneasiness in the presence of
Vida. She had enough self-control to confine herself to, "Yes. Men! The
dear blundering souls, we do have to get off and laugh at them."
"Of course we do. Not that you have to laugh at Dr. Kennicott so much,
but MY man, heavens, now there's a rare old bird! Reading story-books
when he ought to be tending to business! 'Marcus Westlake,' I say to
him, 'you're a romantic old fool.' And does he get angry? He does not!
He chuckles and says, 'Yes, my beloved, folks do say that married
people grow to resemble each other!' Drat him!" Mrs. Westlake laughed
After such a disclosure what could Carol do but return the courtesy by
remarking that as for Kennicott, he wasn't romantic enough--the darling.
Before she left she had babbled to Mrs. Westlake her dislike for Aunt
Bessie, the fact that Kennicott's income was now more than five thousand
a year, her view of the reason why Vida had married Raymie (which
included some thoroughly insincere praise of Raymie's "kind heart"), her
opinion of the library-board, just what Kennicott had said about Mrs.
Carthal's diabetes, and what Kennicott thought of the several surgeons
in the Cities.
She went home soothed by confession, inspirited by finding a new friend.
The tragicomedy of the "domestic situation."
Oscarina went back home to help on the farm, and Carol had a succession
of maids, with gaps between. The lack of servants was becoming one
of the most cramping problems of the prairie town. Increasingly the
farmers' daughters rebelled against village dullness, and against the
unchanged attitude of the Juanitas toward "hired girls." They went off
to city kitchens, or to city shops and factories, that they might be
free and even human after hours.
The Jolly Seventeen were delighted at Carol's desertion by the loyal
Oscarina. They reminded her that she had said, "I don't have any trouble
with maids; see how Oscarina stays on."
Between incumbencies of Finn maids from the North Woods, Germans from
the prairies, occasional Swedes and Norwegians and Icelanders, Carol did
her own work--and endured Aunt Bessie's skittering in to tell her how to
dampen a broom for fluffy dust, how to sugar doughnuts, how to stuff
a goose. Carol was deft, and won shy praise from Kennicott, but as her
shoulder blades began to sting, she wondered how many millions of women
had lied to themselves during the death-rimmed years through which they
had pretended to enjoy the puerile methods persisting in housework.
She doubted the convenience and, as a natural sequent, the sanctity of
the monogamous and separate home which she had regarded as the basis of
all decent life.
She considered her doubts vicious. She refused to remember how many of
the women of the Jolly Seventeen nagged their husbands and were nagged
She energetically did not whine to Kennicott. But her eyes ached; she
was not the girl in breeches and a flannel shirt who had cooked over a
camp-fire in the Colorado mountains five years ago. Her ambition was to
get to bed at nine; her strongest emotion was resentment over rising at
half-past six to care for Hugh. The back of her neck ached as she got
out of bed. She was cynical about the joys of a simple laborious life.
She understood why workmen and workmen's wives are not grateful to their
At mid-morning, when she was momentarily free from the ache in her neck
and back, she was glad of the reality of work. The hours were living
and nimble. But she had no desire to read the eloquent little newspaper
essays in praise of labor which are daily written by the white-browed
journalistic prophets. She felt independent and (though she hid it) a
In cleaning the house she pondered upon the maid's-room. It was a
slant-roofed, small-windowed hole above the kitchen, oppressive in
summer, frigid in winter. She saw that while she had been considering
herself an unusually good mistress, she had been permitting her friends
Bea and Oscarina to live in a sty. She complained to Kennicott. "What's
the matter with it?" he growled, as they stood on the perilous stairs
dodging up from the kitchen. She commented upon the sloping roof of
unplastered boards stained in brown rings by the rain, the uneven floor,
the cot and its tumbled discouraged-looking quilts, the broken rocker,
the distorting mirror.
"Maybe it ain't any Hotel Radisson parlor, but still, it's so much
better than anything these hired girls are accustomed to at home that
they think it's fine. Seems foolish to spend money when they wouldn't
But that night he drawled, with the casualness of a man who wishes to be
surprising and delightful, "Carrie, don't know but what we might begin
to think about building a new house, one of these days. How'd you like
"I'm getting to the point now where I feel we can afford one--and a
corker! I'll show this burg something like a real house! We'll put one
over on Sam and Harry! Make folks sit up an' take notice!"
"Yes," she said.
He did not go on.
Daily he returned to the subject of the new house, but as to time and
mode he was indefinite. At first she believed. She babbled of a low
stone house with lattice windows and tulip-beds, of colonial brick, of
a white frame cottage with green shutters and dormer windows. To her
enthusiasms he answered, "Well, ye-es, might be worth thinking about.
Remember where I put my pipe?" When she pressed him he fidgeted, "I
don't know; seems to me those kind of houses you speak of have been
It proved that what he wanted was a house exactly like Sam Clark's,
which was exactly like every third new house in every town in the
country: a square, yellow stolidity with immaculate clapboards, a broad
screened porch, tidy grass-plots, and concrete walks; a house resembling
the mind of a merchant who votes the party ticket straight and goes to
church once a month and owns a good car.
He admitted, "Well, yes, maybe it isn't so darn artistic but----Matter
of fact, though, I don't want a place just like Sam's. Maybe I would cut
off that fool tower he's got, and I think probably it would look better
painted a nice cream color. That yellow on Sam's house is too kind
of flashy. Then there's another kind of house that's mighty nice and
substantial-looking, with shingles, in a nice brown stain, instead of
clapboards--seen some in Minneapolis. You're way off your base when you
say I only like one kind of house!"
Uncle Whittier and Aunt Bessie came in one evening when Carol was
sleepily advocating a rose-garden cottage.
"You've had a lot of experience with housekeeping, aunty, and don't you
think," Kennicott appealed, "that it would be sensible to have a nice
square house, and pay more attention to getting a crackajack furnace
than to all this architecture and doodads?"
Aunt Bessie worked her lips as though they were an elastic band. "Why
of course! I know how it is with young folks like you, Carrie; you want
towers and bay-windows and pianos and heaven knows what all, but the
thing to get is closets and a good furnace and a handy place to hang out
the washing, and the rest don't matter."
Uncle Whittier dribbled a little, put his face near to Carol's, and
sputtered, "Course it don't! What d'you care what folks think about
the outside of your house? It's the inside you're living in. None of my
business, but I must say you young folks that'd rather have cakes than
potatoes get me riled."
She reached her room before she became savage. Below, dreadfully
near, she could hear the broom-swish of Aunt Bessie's voice, and the
mop-pounding of Uncle Whittier's grumble. She had a reasonless dread
that they would intrude on her, then a fear that she would yield
to Gopher Prairie's conception of duty toward an Aunt Bessie and go
down-stairs to be "nice." She felt the demand for standardized behavior
coming in waves from all the citizens who sat in their sitting-rooms
watching her with respectable eyes, waiting, demanding, unyielding. She
snarled, "Oh, all right, I'll go!" She powdered her nose, straightened
her collar, and coldly marched down-stairs. The three elders ignored
her. They had advanced from the new house to agreeable general fussing.
Aunt Bessie was saying, in a tone like the munching of dry toast:
"I do think Mr. Stowbody ought to have had the rain-pipe fixed at our
store right away. I went to see him on Tuesday morning before ten, no,
it was couple minutes after ten, but anyway, it was long before noon--I
know because I went right from the bank to the meat market to get some
steak--my! I think it's outrageous, the prices Oleson & McGuire charge
for their meat, and it isn't as if they gave you a good cut either but
just any old thing, and I had time to get it, and I stopped in at Mrs.
Bogart's to ask about her rheumatism----"
Carol was watching Uncle Whittier. She knew from his taut expression
that he was not listening to Aunt Bessie but herding his own thoughts,
and that he would interrupt her bluntly. He did:
"Will, where c'n I get an extra pair of pants for this coat and vest? D'
want to pay too much."
"Well, guess Nat Hicks could make you up a pair. But if I were you, I'd
drop into Ike Rifkin's--his prices are lower than the Bon Ton's."
"Humph. Got the new stove in your office yet?"
"No, been looking at some at Sam Clark's but----"
"Well, y' ought get 't in. Don't do to put off getting a stove all
summer, and then have it come cold on you in the fall."
Carol smiled upon them ingratiatingly. "Do you dears mind if I slip up
to bed? I'm rather tired--cleaned the upstairs today."
She retreated. She was certain that they were discussing her, and foully
forgiving her. She lay awake till she heard the distant creak of a bed
which indicated that Kennicott had retired. Then she felt safe.
It was Kennicott who brought up the matter of the Smails at breakfast.
With no visible connection he said, "Uncle Whit is kind of clumsy, but
just the same, he's a pretty wise old coot. He's certainly making good
with the store."
Carol smiled, and Kennicott was pleased that she had come to her senses.
"As Whit says, after all the first thing is to have the inside of a
house right, and darn the people on the outside looking in!"
It seemed settled that the house was to be a sound example of the Sam
Kennicott made much of erecting it entirely for her and the baby. He
spoke of closets for her frocks, and "a comfy sewing-room." But when
he drew on a leaf from an old account-book (he was a paper-saver and a
string-picker) the plans for the garage, he gave much more attention
to a cement floor and a work-bench and a gasoline-tank than he had to
She sat back and was afraid.
In the present rookery there were odd things--a step up from the hall
to the dining-room, a picturesqueness in the shed and bedraggled lilac
bush. But the new place would be smooth, standardized, fixed. It was
probable, now that Kennicott was past forty, and settled, that this
would be the last venture he would ever make in building. So long as she
stayed in this ark, she would always have a possibility of change, but
once she was in the new house, there she would sit for all the rest of
her life--there she would die. Desperately she wanted to put it off,
against the chance of miracles. While Kennicott was chattering about a
patent swing-door for the garage she saw the swing-doors of a prison.
She never voluntarily returned to the project. Aggrieved, Kennicott
stopped drawing plans, and in ten days the new house was forgotten.
Every year since their marriage Carol had longed for a trip through the
East. Every year Kennicott had talked of attending the American Medical
Association convention, "and then afterwards we could do the East
up brown. I know New York clean through--spent pretty near a week
there--but I would like to see New England and all these historic places
and have some sea-food." He talked of it from February to May, and in
May he invariably decided that coming confinement-cases or land-deals
would prevent his "getting away from home-base for very long THIS
year--and no sense going till we can do it right."
The weariness of dish-washing had increased her desire to go. She
pictured herself looking at Emerson's manse, bathing in a surf of jade
and ivory, wearing a trottoir and a summer fur, meeting an aristocratic
Stranger. In the spring Kennicott had pathetically volunteered, "S'pose
you'd like to get in a good long tour this summer, but with Gould and
Mac away and so many patients depending on me, don't see how I can make
it. By golly, I feel like a tightwad though, not taking you." Through
all this restless July after she had tasted Bresnahan's disturbing
flavor of travel and gaiety, she wanted to go, but she said nothing.
They spoke of and postponed a trip to the Twin Cities. When she
suggested, as though it were a tremendous joke, "I think baby and I
might up and leave you, and run off to Cape Cod by ourselves!" his only
reaction was "Golly, don't know but what you may almost have to do that,
if we don't get in a trip next year."
Toward the end of July he proposed, "Say, the Beavers are holding a
convention in Joralemon, street fair and everything. We might go down
tomorrow. And I'd like to see Dr. Calibree about some business. Put in