The Project Gutenberg ebook of Main Street, by Sinclair Lewis



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bed he sat on the front steps. Nat Hicks, tailor and roue, came to sit

beside him. Between waves of his hand as he drove off mosquitos, Nat

whispered, "Say, doc, you don't feel like imagining you're a bacheldore

again, and coming out for a Time tonight, do you?"
"As how?"
"You know this new dressmaker, Mrs. Swiftwaite?--swell dame with

blondine hair? Well, she's a pretty good goer. Me and Harry Haydock are

going to take her and that fat wren that works in the Bon Ton--nice kid,

too--on an auto ride tonight. Maybe we'll drive down to that farm Harry

bought. We're taking some beer, and some of the smoothest rye you ever

laid tongue to. I'm not predicting none, but if we don't have a picnic,

I'll miss my guess."
"Go to it. No skin off my ear, Nat. Think I want to be fifth wheel in

the coach?"


"No, but look here: The little Swiftwaite has a friend with her from

Winona, dandy looker and some gay bird, and Harry and me thought maybe

you'd like to sneak off for one evening."
"No--no----"
"Rats now, doc, forget your everlasting dignity. You used to be a pretty

good sport yourself, when you were foot-free."


It may have been the fact that Mrs. Swiftwaite's friend remained to

Kennicott an ill-told rumor, it may have been Carol's voice, wistful

in the pallid evening as she sang to Hugh, it may have been natural and

commendable virtue, but certainly he was positive:


"Nope. I'm married for keeps. Don't pretend to be any saint. Like to

get out and raise Cain and shoot a few drinks. But a fellow owes a

duty----Straight now, won't you feel like a sneak when you come back to

the missus after your jamboree?"


"Me? My moral in life is, 'What they don't know won't hurt 'em none.'

The way to handle wives, like the fellow says, is to catch 'em early,

treat 'em rough, and tell 'em nothing!"
"Well, that's your business, I suppose. But I can't get away with it.

Besides that--way I figure it, this illicit love-making is the one game

that you always lose at. If you do lose, you feel foolish; and if you

win, as soon as you find out how little it is that you've been scheming

for, why then you lose worse than ever. Nature stinging us, as usual.

But at that, I guess a lot of wives in this burg would be surprised if

they knew everything that goes on behind their backs, eh, Nattie?"
"WOULD they! Say, boy! If the good wives knew what some of the boys get

away with when they go down to the Cities, why, they'd throw a fit!

Sure you won't come, doc? Think of getting all cooled off by a good long

drive, and then the lov-e-ly Swiftwaite's white hand mixing you a good

stiff highball!"
"Nope. Nope. Sorry. Guess I won't," grumbled Kennicott.
He was glad that Nat showed signs of going. But he was restless. He

heard Carol on the stairs. "Come have a seat--have the whole earth!" he

shouted jovially.
She did not answer his joviality. She sat on the porch, rocked silently,

then sighed, "So many mosquitos out here. You haven't had the screen

fixed."
As though he was testing her he said quietly, "Head aching again?"
"Oh, not much, but----This maid is SO slow to learn. I have to show her

everything. I had to clean most of the silver myself. And Hugh was so

bad all afternoon. He whined so. Poor soul, he was hot, but he did wear

me out."
"Uh----You usually want to get out. Like to walk down to the lake shore?

(The girl can stay home.) Or go to the movies? Come on, let's go to the

movies! Or shall we jump in the car and run out to Sam's, for a swim?"


"If you don't mind, dear, I'm afraid I'm rather tired."
"Why don't you sleep down-stairs tonight, on the couch? Be cooler. I'm

going to bring down my mattress. Come on! Keep the old man company.

Can't tell--I might get scared of burglars. Lettin' little fellow like

me stay all alone by himself!"


"It's sweet of you to think of it, but I like my own room so much. But

you go ahead and do it, dear. Why don't you sleep on the couch, instead

of putting your mattress on the floor? Well I believe I'll run in and

read for just a second--want to look at the last Vogue--and then perhaps

I'll go by-by. Unless you want me, dear? Of course if there's anything

you really WANT me for?"


"No. No. . . . Matter of fact, I really ought to run down and see Mrs.

Champ Perry. She's ailing. So you skip in and----May drop in at the drug

store. If I'm not home when you get sleepy, don't wait up for me."
He kissed her, rambled off, nodded to Jim Howland, stopped indifferently

to speak to Mrs. Terry Gould. But his heart was racing, his stomach

was constricted. He walked more slowly. He reached Dave Dyer's yard. He

glanced in. On the porch, sheltered by a wild-grape vine, was the

figure of a woman in white. He heard the swing-couch creak as she sat up

abruptly, peered, then leaned back and pretended to relax.


"Be nice to have some cool beer. Just drop in for a second," he

insisted, as he opened the Dyer gate.

II

Mrs. Bogart was calling upon Carol, protected by Aunt Bessie Smail.


"Have you heard about this awful woman that's supposed to have come here

to do dressmaking--a Mrs. Swiftwaite--awful peroxide blonde?" moaned

Mrs. Bogart. "They say there's some of the awfullest goings-on at her

house--mere boys and old gray-headed rips sneaking in there evenings

and drinking licker and every kind of goings-on. We women can't never

realize the carnal thoughts in the hearts of men. I tell you, even

though I been acquainted with Will Kennicott almost since he was a mere

boy, seems like, I wouldn't trust even him! Who knows what designin'

women might tempt him! Especially a doctor, with women rushin' in to see

him at his office and all! You know I never hint around, but haven't you

felt that----"
Carol was furious. "I don't pretend that Will has no faults. But one

thing I do know: He's as simple-hearted about what you call 'goings-on'

as a babe. And if he ever were such a sad dog as to look at another

woman, I certainly hope he'd have spirit enough to do the tempting, and

not be coaxed into it, as in your depressing picture!"
"Why, what a wicked thing to say, Carrie!" from Aunt Bessie.
"No, I mean it! Oh, of course, I don't mean it! But----I know every

thought in his head so well that he couldn't hide anything even if he

wanted to. Now this morning----He was out late, last night; he had to

go see Mrs. Perry, who is ailing, and then fix a man's hand, and this

morning he was so quiet and thoughtful at breakfast and----" She leaned

forward, breathed dramatically to the two perched harpies, "What do you

suppose he was thinking of?"
"What?" trembled Mrs. Bogart.
"Whether the grass needs cutting, probably! There, there! Don't mind my

naughtiness. I have some fresh-made raisin cookies for you."


CHAPTER XXVI


CAROL'S liveliest interest was in her walks with the baby. Hugh wanted

to know what the box-elder tree said, and what the Ford garage said, and

what the big cloud said, and she told him, with a feeling that she was

not in the least making up stories, but discovering the souls of things.

They had an especial fondness for the hitching-post in front of the

mill. It was a brown post, stout and agreeable; the smooth leg of it

held the sunlight, while its neck, grooved by hitching-straps, tickled

one's fingers. Carol had never been awake to the earth except as a show

of changing color and great satisfying masses; she had lived in people

and in ideas about having ideas; but Hugh's questions made her attentive

to the comedies of sparrows, robins, blue jays, yellowhammers; she

regained her pleasure in the arching flight of swallows, and added to it

a solicitude about their nests and family squabbles.
She forgot her seasons of boredom. She said to Hugh, "We're two fat

disreputable old minstrels roaming round the world," and he echoed her,

"Roamin' round--roamin' round."
The high adventure, the secret place to which they both fled joyously,

was the house of Miles and Bea and Olaf Bjornstam.


Kennicott steadily disapproved of the Bjornstams. He protested, "What

do you want to talk to that crank for?" He hinted that a former "Swede

hired girl" was low company for the son of Dr. Will Kennicott. She did

not explain. She did not quite understand it herself; did not know that

in the Bjornstams she found her friends, her club, her sympathy and her

ration of blessed cynicism. For a time the gossip of Juanita Haydock and

the Jolly Seventeen had been a refuge from the droning of Aunt Bessie,

but the relief had not continued. The young matrons made her nervous.

They talked so loud, always so loud. They filled a room with

clashing cackle; their jests and gags they repeated nine times over.

Unconsciously, she had discarded the Jolly Seventeen, Guy Pollock, Vida,

and every one save Mrs. Dr. Westlake and the friends whom she did not

clearly know as friends--the Bjornstams.
To Hugh, the Red Swede was the most heroic and powerful person in the

world. With unrestrained adoration he trotted after while Miles fed the

cows, chased his one pig--an animal of lax and migratory instincts--or

dramatically slaughtered a chicken. And to Hugh, Olaf was lord among

mortal men, less stalwart than the old monarch, King Miles, but more

understanding of the relations and values of things, of small sticks,

lone playing-cards, and irretrievably injured hoops.
Carol saw, though she did not admit, that Olaf was not only more

beautiful than her own dark child, but more gracious. Olaf was a Norse

chieftain: straight, sunny-haired, large-limbed, resplendently amiable

to his subjects. Hugh was a vulgarian; a bustling business man. It was

Hugh that bounced and said "Let's play"; Olaf that opened luminous blue

eyes and agreed "All right," in condescending gentleness. If Hugh batted

him--and Hugh did bat him--Olaf was unafraid but shocked. In magnificent

solitude he marched toward the house, while Hugh bewailed his sin and

the overclouding of august favor.
The two friends played with an imperial chariot which Miles had made out

of a starch-box and four red spools; together they stuck switches into

a mouse-hole, with vast satisfaction though entirely without known

results.
Bea, the chubby and humming Bea, impartially gave cookies and scoldings

to both children, and if Carol refused a cup of coffee and a wafer of

buttered knackebrod, she was desolated.


Miles had done well with his dairy. He had six cows, two hundred

chickens, a cream separator, a Ford truck. In the spring he had built a

two-room addition to his shack. That illustrious building was to Hugh a

carnival. Uncle Miles did the most spectacular, unexpected things: ran

up the ladder; stood on the ridge-pole, waving a hammer and singing

something about "To arms, my citizens"; nailed shingles faster than

Aunt Bessie could iron handkerchiefs; and lifted a two-by-six with Hugh

riding on one end and Olaf on the other. Uncle Miles's most ecstatic

trick was to make figures not on paper but right on a new pine board,

with the broadest softest pencil in the world. There was a thing worth

seeing!
The tools! In his office Father had tools fascinating in their shininess

and curious shapes, but they were sharp, they were something called

sterized, and they distinctly were not for boys to touch. In fact it

was a good dodge to volunteer "I must not touch," when you looked at the

tools on the glass shelves in Father's office. But Uncle Miles, who

was a person altogether superior to Father, let you handle all his kit

except the saws. There was a hammer with a silver head; there was a

metal thing like a big L; there was a magic instrument, very precious,

made out of costly red wood and gold, with a tube which contained a

drop--no, it wasn't a drop, it was a nothing, which lived in the water,

but the nothing LOOKED like a drop, and it ran in a frightened way

up and down the tube, no matter how cautiously you tilted the magic

instrument. And there were nails, very different and clever--big

valiant spikes, middle-sized ones which were not very interesting, and

shingle-nails much jollier than the fussed-up fairies in the yellow

book.


II

While he had worked on the addition Miles had talked frankly to Carol.

He admitted now that so long as he stayed in Gopher Prairie he would

remain a pariah. Bea's Lutheran friends were as much offended by his

agnostic gibes as the merchants by his radicalism. "And I can't seem to

keep my mouth shut. I think I'm being a baa-lamb, and not springing any

theories wilder than 'c-a-t spells cat,' but when folks have gone, I

re'lize I've been stepping on their pet religious corns. Oh, the mill

foreman keeps dropping in, and that Danish shoemaker, and one fellow

from Elder's factory, and a few Svenskas, but you know Bea: big

good-hearted wench like her wants a lot of folks around--likes to fuss

over 'em--never satisfied unless she tiring herself out making coffee

for somebody.
"Once she kidnapped me and drug me to the Methodist Church. I goes in,

pious as Widow Bogart, and sits still and never cracks a smile while

the preacher is favoring us with his misinformation on evolution. But

afterwards, when the old stalwarts were pumphandling everybody at the

door and calling 'em 'Brother' and 'Sister,' they let me sail right by

with nary a clinch. They figure I'm the town badman. Always will be, I

guess. It'll have to be Olaf who goes on. 'And sometimes----Blamed if I

don't feel like coming out and saying, 'I've been conservative. Nothing

to it. Now I'm going to start something in these rotten one-horse

lumber-camps west of town.' But Bea's got me hypnotized. Lord, Mrs.

Kennicott, do you re'lize what a jolly, square, faithful woman she is?

And I love Olaf----Oh well, I won't go and get sentimental on you.


"Course I've had thoughts of pulling up stakes and going West. Maybe

if they didn't know it beforehand, they wouldn't find out I'd ever been

guilty of trying to think for myself. But--oh, I've worked hard, and

built up this dairy business, and I hate to start all over again, and

move Bea and the kid into another one-room shack. That's how they get

us! Encourage us to be thrifty and own our own houses, and then, by

golly, they've got us; they know we won't dare risk everything by

committing lez--what is it? lez majesty?--I mean they know we won't be

hinting around that if we had a co-operative bank, we could get along

without Stowbody. Well----As long as I can sit and play pinochle with

Bea, and tell whoppers to Olaf about his daddy's adventures in the

woods, and how he snared a wapaloosie and knew Paul Bunyan, why, I

don't mind being a bum. It's just for them that I mind. Say! Say! Don't

whisper a word to Bea, but when I get this addition done, I'm going to

buy her a phonograph!"
He did.
While she was busy with the activities her work-hungry muscles

found--washing, ironing, mending, baking, dusting, preserving, plucking

a chicken, painting the sink; tasks which, because she was Miles's full

partner, were exciting and creative--Bea listened to the phonograph

records with rapture like that of cattle in a warm stable. The addition

gave her a kitchen with a bedroom above. The original one-room shack was

now a living-room, with the phonograph, a genuine leather-upholstered

golden-oak rocker, and a picture of Governor John Johnson.


In late July Carol went to the Bjornstams' desirous of a chance to

express her opinion of Beavers and Calibrees and Joralemons. She found

Olaf abed, restless from a slight fever, and Bea flushed and dizzy but

trying to keep up her work. She lured Miles aside and worried:


"They don't look at all well. What's the matter?"
"Their stomachs are out of whack. I wanted to call in Doc Kennicott, but

Bea thinks the doc doesn't like us--she thinks maybe he's sore because

you come down here. But I'm getting worried."
"I'm going to call the doctor at once."
She yearned over Olaf. His lambent eyes were stupid, he moaned, he

rubbed his forehead.


"Have they been eating something that's been bad for them?" she

fluttered to Miles.


"Might be bum water. I'll tell you: We used to get our water at Oscar

Eklund's place, over across the street, but Oscar kept dinging at me,

and hinting I was a tightwad not to dig a well of my own. One time

he said, 'Sure, you socialists are great on divvying up other folks'

money--and water!' I knew if he kept it up there'd be a fuss, and I

ain't safe to have around, once a fuss starts; I'm likely to forget

myself and let loose with a punch in the snoot. I offered to pay Oscar

but he refused--he'd rather have the chance to kid me. So I starts

getting water down at Mrs. Fageros's, in the hollow there, and I don't

believe it's real good. Figuring to dig my own well this fall."


One scarlet word was before Carol's eyes while she listened. She fled to

Kennicott's office. He gravely heard her out; nodded, said, "Be right

over."
He examined Bea and Olaf. He shook his head. "Yes. Looks to me like

typhoid."


"Golly, I've seen typhoid in lumber-camps," groaned Miles, all the

strength dripping out of him. "Have they got it very bad?"


"Oh, we'll take good care of them," said Kennicott, and for the first

time in their acquaintance he smiled on Miles and clapped his shoulder.


"Won't you need a nurse?" demanded Carol.
"Why----" To Miles, Kennicott hinted, "Couldn't you get Bea's cousin,

Tina?"
"She's down at the old folks', in the country."


"Then let me do it!" Carol insisted. "They need some one to cook for

them, and isn't it good to give them sponge baths, in typhoid?"


"Yes. All right." Kennicott was automatic; he was the official, the

physician. "I guess probably it would be hard to get a nurse here in

town just now. Mrs. Stiver is busy with an obstetrical case, and that

town nurse of yours is off on vacation, ain't she? All right, Bjornstam

can spell you at night."
All week, from eight each morning till midnight, Carol fed them, bathed

them, smoothed sheets, took temperatures. Miles refused to let her cook.

Terrified, pallid, noiseless in stocking feet, he did the kitchen work

and the sweeping, his big red hands awkwardly careful. Kennicott came

in three times a day, unchangingly tender and hopeful in the sick-room,

evenly polite to Miles.


Carol understood how great was her love for her friends. It bore

her through; it made her arm steady and tireless to bathe them.

What exhausted her was the sight of Bea and Olaf turned into flaccid

invalids, uncomfortably flushed after taking food, begging for the

healing of sleep at night.
During the second week Olaf's powerful legs were flabby. Spots of a

viciously delicate pink came out on his chest and back. His cheeks sank.

He looked frightened. His tongue was brown and revolting. His confident

voice dwindled to a bewildered murmur, ceaseless and racking.


Bea had stayed on her feet too long at the beginning. The moment

Kennicott had ordered her to bed she had begun to collapse. One early

evening she startled them by screaming, in an intense abdominal pain,

and within half an hour she was in a delirium. Till dawn Carol was

with her, and not all of Bea's groping through the blackness of

half-delirious pain was so pitiful to Carol as the way in which Miles

silently peered into the room from the top of the narrow stairs.

Carol slept three hours next morning, and ran back. Bea was altogether

delirious but she muttered nothing save, "Olaf--ve have such a good

time----"


At ten, while Carol was preparing an ice-bag in the kitchen, Miles

answered a knock. At the front door she saw Vida Sherwin, Maud Dyer, and

Mrs. Zitterel, wife of the Baptist pastor. They were carrying grapes,

and women's-magazines, magazines with high-colored pictures and

optimistic fiction.
"We just heard your wife was sick. We've come to see if there isn't

something we can do," chirruped Vida.


Miles looked steadily at the three women. "You're too late. You can't

do nothing now. Bea's always kind of hoped that you folks would come see

her. She wanted to have a chance and be friends. She used to sit waiting

for somebody to knock. I've seen her sitting here, waiting. Now----Oh,

you ain't worth God-damning." He shut the door.
All day Carol watched Olaf's strength oozing. He was emaciated. His ribs

were grim clear lines, his skin was clammy, his pulse was feeble but

terrifyingly rapid. It beat--beat--beat in a drum-roll of death. Late

that afternoon he sobbed, and died.


Bea did not know it. She was delirious. Next morning, when she went,

she did not know that Olaf would no longer swing his lath sword on the

door-step, no longer rule his subjects of the cattle-yard; that Miles's

son would not go East to college.


Miles, Carol, Kennicott were silent. They washed the bodies together,

their eyes veiled.


"Go home now and sleep. You're pretty tired. I can't ever pay you back

for what you done," Miles whispered to Carol.


"Yes. But I'll be back here tomorrow. Go with you to the funeral," she

said laboriously.


When the time for the funeral came, Carol was in bed, collapsed. She

assumed that neighbors would go. They had not told her that word of

Miles's rebuff to Vida had spread through town, a cyclonic fury.
It was only by chance that, leaning on her elbow in bed, she glanced

through the window and saw the funeral of Bea and Olaf. There was

no music, no carriages. There was only Miles Bjornstam, in his black

wedding-suit, walking quite alone, head down, behind the shabby hearse

that bore the bodies of his wife and baby.
An hour after, Hugh came into her room crying, and when she said as

cheerily as she could, "What is it, dear?" he besought, "Mummy, I want

to go play with Olaf."
That afternoon Juanita Haydock dropped in to brighten Carol. She said,

"Too bad about this Bea that was your hired girl. But I don't waste

any sympathy on that man of hers. Everybody says he drank too much, and

treated his family awful, and that's how they got sick."


CHAPTER XXVII


I
A LETTER from Raymie Wutherspoon, in France, said that he had been sent

to the front, been slightly wounded, been made a captain. From Vida's

pride Carol sought to draw a stimulant to rouse her from depression.

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