"Yump. That's him. Wasn't that the darndest get-up he had on!" Kennicott
scratched at a white smear on his hard gray sleeve.
"It wasn't so bad. I wonder where he comes from? He seems to have lived
in cities a good deal. Is he from the East?"
"The East? Him? Why, he comes from a farm right up north here, just this
side of Jefferson. I know his father slightly--Adolph Valborg--typical
cranky old Swede farmer."
"Oh, really?" blandly.
"Believe he has lived in Minneapolis for quite some time, though.
Learned his trade there. And I will say he's bright, some ways. Reads
a lot. Pollock says he takes more books out of the library than anybody
else in town. Huh! He's kind of like you in that!"
The Smails and Kennicott laughed very much at this sly jest. Uncle
Whittier seized the conversation. "That fellow that's working for Hicks?
Milksop, that's what he is. Makes me tired to see a young fellow that
ought to be in the war, or anyway out in the fields earning his living
honest, like I done when I was young, doing a woman's work and then come
out and dress up like a show-actor! Why, when I was his age----"
Carol reflected that the carving-knife would make an excellent dagger
with which to kill Uncle Whittier. It would slide in easily. The
headlines would be terrible.
Kennicott said judiciously, "Oh, I don't want to be unjust to him.
I believe he took his physical examination for military service. Got
varicose veins--not bad, but enough to disqualify him. Though I will say
he doesn't look like a fellow that would be so awful darn crazy to poke
his bayonet into a Hun's guts."
"Well, he don't. Looks soft to me. And they say he told Del Snafflin,
when he was getting a hair-cut on Saturday, that he wished he could play
"Isn't it wonderful how much we all know about one another in a town
like this," said Carol innocently.
Kennicott was suspicious, but Aunt Bessie, serving the floating island
pudding, agreed, "Yes, it is wonderful. Folks can get away with all
sorts of meannesses and sins in these terrible cities, but they can't
here. I was noticing this tailor fellow this morning, and when Mrs.
Riggs offered to share her hymn-book with him, he shook his head, and
all the while we was singing he just stood there like a bump on a log
and never opened his mouth. Everybody says he's got an idea that he's
got so much better manners and all than what the rest of us have, but if
that's what he calls good manners, I want to know!"
Carol again studied the carving-knife. Blood on the whiteness of a
tablecloth might be gorgeous.
"Fool! Neurotic impossibilist! Telling yourself orchard fairy-tales--at
thirty. . . . Dear Lord, am I really THIRTY? That boy can't be more than
She went calling.
Boarding with the Widow Bogart was Fern Mullins, a girl of twenty-two
who was to be teacher of English, French, and gymnastics in the high
school this coming session. Fern Mullins had come to town early, for the
six-weeks normal course for country teachers. Carol had noticed her on
the street, had heard almost as much about her as about Erik Valborg.
She was tall, weedy, pretty, and incurably rakish. Whether she wore a
low middy collar or dressed reticently for school in a black suit with a
high-necked blouse, she was airy, flippant. "She looks like an absolute
totty," said all the Mrs. Sam Clarks, disapprovingly, and all the
Juanita Haydocks, enviously.
That Sunday evening, sitting in baggy canvas lawn-chairs beside the
house, the Kennicotts saw Fern laughing with Cy Bogart who, though still
a junior in high school, was now a lump of a man, only two or three
years younger than Fern. Cy had to go downtown for weighty matters
connected with the pool-parlor. Fern drooped on the Bogart porch, her
chin in her hands.
"She looks lonely," said Kennicott.
"She does, poor soul. I believe I'll go over and speak to her. I was
introduced to her at Dave's but I haven't called." Carol was slipping
across the lawn, a white figure in the dimness, faintly brushing the
dewy grass. She was thinking of Erik and of the fact that her feet
were wet, and she was casual in her greeting: "Hello! The doctor and I
wondered if you were lonely."
Resentfully, "I am!"
Carol concentrated on her. "My dear, you sound so! I know how it is. I
used to be tired when I was on the job--I was a librarian. What was your
college? I was Blodgett."
More interestedly, "I went to the U." Fern meant the University of
"You must have had a splendid time. Blodgett was a bit dull."
"Where were you a librarian?" challengingly.
"St. Paul--the main library."
"Honest? Oh dear, I wish I was back in the Cities! This is my first year
of teaching, and I'm scared stiff. I did have the best time in college:
dramatics and basket-ball and fussing and dancing--I'm simply crazy
about dancing. And here, except when I have the kids in gymnasium class,
or when I'm chaperoning the basket-ball team on a trip out-of-town, I
won't dare to move above a whisper. I guess they don't care much if
you put any pep into teaching or not, as long as you look like a Good
Influence out of school-hours--and that means never doing anything you
want to. This normal course is bad enough, but the regular school will
be FIERCE! If it wasn't too late to get a job in the Cities, I swear I'd
resign here. I bet I won't dare to go to a single dance all winter. If
I cut loose and danced the way I like to, they'd think I was a perfect
hellion--poor harmless me! Oh, I oughtn't to be talking like this. Fern,
you never could be cagey!"
"Don't be frightened, my dear! . . . Doesn't that sound atrociously old
and kind! I'm talking to you the way Mrs. Westlake talks to me! That's
having a husband and a kitchen range, I suppose. But I feel young, and I
want to dance like a--like a hellion?--too. So I sympathize."
Fern made a sound of gratitude. Carol inquired, "What experience did you
have with college dramatics? I tried to start a kind of Little Theater
here. It was dreadful. I must tell you about it----"
Two hours later, when Kennicott came over to greet Fern and to yawn,
"Look here, Carrie, don't you suppose you better be thinking about
turning in? I've got a hard day tomorrow," the two were talking so
intimately that they constantly interrupted each other.
As she went respectably home, convoyed by a husband, and decorously
holding up her skirts, Carol rejoiced, "Everything has changed! I have
two friends, Fern and----But who's the other? That's queer; I thought
there was----Oh, how absurd!"
She often passed Erik Valborg on the street; the brown jersey coat
became unremarkable. When she was driving with Kennicott, in early
evening, she saw him on the lake shore, reading a thin book which might
easily have been poetry. She noted that he was the only person in the
motorized town who still took long walks.
She told herself that she was the daughter of a judge, the wife of a
doctor, and that she did not care to know a capering tailor. She told
herself that she was not responsive to men . . . not even to Percy
Bresnahan. She told herself that a woman of thirty who heeded a boy
of twenty-five was ridiculous. And on Friday, when she had convinced
herself that the errand was necessary, she went to Nat Hicks's shop,
bearing the not very romantic burden of a pair of her husband's
trousers. Hicks was in the back room. She faced the Greek god who, in a
somewhat ungodlike way, was stitching a coat on a scaley sewing-machine,
in a room of smutted plaster walls.
She saw that his hands were not in keeping with a Hellenic face. They
were thick, roughened with needle and hot iron and plow-handle. Even
in the shop he persisted in his finery. He wore a silk shirt, a topaz
scarf, thin tan shoes.
This she absorbed while she was saying curtly, "Can I get these pressed,
Not rising from the sewing-machine he stuck out his hand, mumbled, "When
do you want them?"
The adventure was over. She was marching out.
"What name?" he called after her.
He had risen and, despite the farcicality of Dr. Will Kennicott's bulgy
trousers draped over his arm, he had the grace of a cat.
"Kennicott. Oh! Oh say, you're Mrs. Dr. Kennicott then, aren't you?"
"Yes." She stood at the door. Now that she had carried out her
preposterous impulse to see what he was like, she was cold, she was as
ready to detect familiarities as the virtuous Miss Ella Stowbody.
"I've heard about you. Myrtle Cass was saying you got up a dramatic club
and gave a dandy play. I've always wished I had a chance to belong to a
Little Theater, and give some European plays, or whimsical like Barrie,
or a pageant."
He pronounced it "pagent"; he rhymed "pag" with "rag."
Carol nodded in the manner of a lady being kind to a tradesman, and one
of her selves sneered, "Our Erik is indeed a lost John Keats."
He was appealing, "Do you suppose it would be possible to get up another
dramatic club this coming fall?"
"Well, it might be worth thinking of." She came out of her several
conflicting poses, and said sincerely, "There's a new teacher, Miss
Mullins, who might have some talent. That would make three of us for a
nucleus. If we could scrape up half a dozen we might give a real play
with a small cast. Have you had any experience?"
"Just a bum club that some of us got up in Minneapolis when I was
working there. We had one good man, an interior decorator--maybe he was
kind of sis and effeminate, but he really was an artist, and we gave one
dandy play. But I----Of course I've always had to work hard, and study
by myself, and I'm probably sloppy, and I'd love it if I had training in
rehearsing--I mean, the crankier the director was, the better I'd like
it. If you didn't want to use me as an actor, I'd love to design the
costumes. I'm crazy about fabrics--textures and colors and designs."
She knew that he was trying to keep her from going, trying to indicate
that he was something more than a person to whom one brought trousers
for pressing. He besought:
"Some day I hope I can get away from this fool repairing, when I have
the money saved up. I want to go East and work for some big dressmaker,
and study art drawing, and become a high-class designer. Or do you think
that's a kind of fiddlin' ambition for a fellow? I was brought up on
a farm. And then monkeyin' round with silks! I don't know. What do you
think? Myrtle Cass says you're awfully educated."
"I am. Awfully. Tell me: Have the boys made fun of your ambition?"
She was seventy years old, and sexless, and more advisory than Vida
"Well, they have, at that. They've jollied me a good deal, here and
Minneapolis both. They say dressmaking is ladies' work. (But I was
willing to get drafted for the war! I tried to get in. But they
rejected me. But I did try! ) I thought some of working up in a gents'
furnishings store, and I had a chance to travel on the road for a
clothing house, but somehow--I hate this tailoring, but I can't seem
to get enthusiastic about salesmanship. I keep thinking about a room in
gray oatmeal paper with prints in very narrow gold frames--or would it
be better in white enamel paneling?--but anyway, it looks out on
Fifth Avenue, and I'm designing a sumptuous----" He made it
"sump-too-ous"--"robe of linden green chiffon over cloth of gold! You
know--tileul. It's elegant. . . . What do you think?"
"Why not? What do you care for the opinion of city rowdies, or a lot
of farm boys? But you mustn't, you really mustn't, let casual strangers
like me have a chance to judge you."
"Well----You aren't a stranger, one way. Myrtle Cass--Miss Cass, should
say--she's spoken about you so often. I wanted to call on you--and the
doctor--but I didn't quite have the nerve. One evening I walked past
your house, but you and your husband were talking on the porch, and you
looked so chummy and happy I didn't dare butt in."
Maternally, "I think it's extremely nice of you to want to be trained
in--in enunciation by a stage-director. Perhaps I could help you. I'm
a thoroughly sound and uninspired schoolma'am by instinct; quite
"Oh, you aren't EITHER!"
She was not very successful at accepting his fervor with the air of
amused woman of the world, but she sounded reasonably impersonal: "Thank
you. Shall we see if we really can get up a new dramatic club? I'll tell
you: Come to the house this evening, about eight. I'll ask Miss Mullins
to come over, and we'll talk about it."
"He has absolutely no sense of humor. Less than Will. But hasn't
he-----What is a 'sense of humor'? Isn't the thing he lacks the
back-slapping jocosity that passes for humor here? Anyway----Poor lamb,
coaxing me to stay and play with him! Poor lonely lamb! If he could be
free from Nat Hickses, from people who say 'dandy' and 'bum,' would he
"I wonder if Whitman didn't use Brooklyn back-street slang, as a boy?
"No. Not Whitman. He's Keats--sensitive to silken things. 'Innumerable
of stains and splendid dyes as are the tiger-moth's deep-damask'd
wings.' Keats, here! A bewildered spirit fallen on Main Street. And Main
Street laughs till it aches, giggles till the spirit doubts his own self
and tries to give up the use of wings for the correct uses of a 'gents'
furnishings store.' Gopher Prairie with its celebrated eleven miles of
cement walk. . . . I wonder how much of the cement is made out of the
tombstones of John Keatses?"
Kennicott was cordial to Fern Mullins, teased her, told her he was a
"great hand for running off with pretty school-teachers," and promised
that if the school-board should object to her dancing, he would "bat 'em
one over the head and tell 'em how lucky they were to get a girl with
some go to her, for once."
But to Erik Valborg he was not cordial. He shook hands loosely, and
said, "H' are yuh."
Nat Hicks was socially acceptable; he had been here for years, and
owned his shop; but this person was merely Nat's workman, and the
town's principle of perfect democracy was not meant to be applied
The conference on a dramatic club theoretically included Kennicott, but
he sat back, patting yawns, conscious of Fern's ankles, smiling amiably
on the children at their sport.
Fern wanted to tell her grievances; Carol was sulky every time she
thought of "The Girl from Kankakee"; it was Erik who made suggestions.
He had read with astounding breadth, and astounding lack of judgment.
His voice was sensitive to liquids, but he overused the word "glorious."
He mispronounced a tenth of the words he had from books, but he knew it.
He was insistent, but he was shy.
When he demanded, "I'd like to stage 'Suppressed Desires,' by Cook and
Miss Glaspell," Carol ceased to be patronizing. He was not the yearner:
he was the artist, sure of his vision. "I'd make it simple. Use a big
window at the back, with a cyclorama of a blue that would simply hit you
in the eye, and just one tree-branch, to suggest a park below. Put
the breakfast table on a dais. Let the colors be kind of arty and
tea-roomy--orange chairs, and orange and blue table, and blue Japanese
breakfast set, and some place, one big flat smear of black--bang! Oh.
Another play I wish we could do is Tennyson Jesse's 'The Black Mask.'
I've never seen it but----Glorious ending, where this woman looks at
the man with his face all blown away, and she just gives one horrible
"Good God, is that your idea of a glorious ending?" bayed Kennicott.
"That sounds fierce! I do love artistic things, but not the horrible
ones," moaned Fern Mullins.
Erik was bewildered; glanced at Carol. She nodded loyally.
At the end of the conference they had decided nothing.
SHE had walked up the railroad track with Hugh, this Sunday afternoon.
She saw Erik Valborg coming, in an ancient highwater suit, tramping
sullenly and alone, striking at the rails with a stick. For a second
she unreasoningly wanted to avoid him, but she kept on, and she serenely
talked about God, whose voice, Hugh asserted, made the humming in the
telegraph wires. Erik stared, straightened. They greeted each other with
"Hugh, say how-do-you-do to Mr. Valborg."
"Oh, dear me, he's got a button unbuttoned," worried Erik, kneeling.
Carol frowned, then noted the strength with which he swung the baby in
"May I walk along a piece with you?"
"I'm tired. Let's rest on those ties. Then I must be trotting back."
They sat on a heap of discarded railroad ties, oak logs spotted with
cinnamon-colored dry-rot and marked with metallic brown streaks where
iron plates had rested. Hugh learned that the pile was the hiding-place
of Injuns; he went gunning for them while the elders talked of
The telegraph wires thrummed, thrummed, thrummed above them; the rails
were glaring hard lines; the goldenrod smelled dusty. Across the track
was a pasture of dwarf clover and sparse lawn cut by earthy cow-paths;
beyond its placid narrow green, the rough immensity of new stubble,
jagged with wheat-stacks like huge pineapples.
Erik talked of books; flamed like a recent convert to any faith. He
exhibited as many titles and authors as possible, halting only to
appeal, "Have you read his last book? Don't you think he's a terribly
She was dizzy. But when he insisted, "You've been a librarian; tell
me; do I read too much fiction?" she advised him loftily, rather
discursively. He had, she indicated, never studied. He had skipped from
one emotion to another. Especially--she hesitated, then flung it at
him--he must not guess at pronunciations; he must endure the nuisance of
stopping to reach for the dictionary.
"I'm talking like a cranky teacher," she sighed.
"No! And I will study! Read the damned dictionary right through." He
crossed his legs and bent over, clutching his ankle with both hands. "I
know what you mean. I've been rushing from picture to picture, like a
kid let loose in an art gallery for the first time. You see, it's so
awful recent that I've found there was a world--well, a world where
beautiful things counted. I was on the farm till I was nineteen. Dad is
a good farmer, but nothing else. Do you know why he first sent me off to
learn tailoring? I wanted to study drawing, and he had a cousin that'd
made a lot of money tailoring out in Dakota, and he said tailoring was
a lot like drawing, so he sent me down to a punk hole called Curlew,
to work in a tailor shop. Up to that time I'd only had three months'
schooling a year--walked to school two miles, through snow up to my
knees--and Dad never would stand for my having a single book except
"I never read a novel till I got 'Dorothy Vernon of Haddon Hall' out
of the library at Curlew. I thought it was the loveliest thing in the
world! Next I read 'Barriers Burned Away' and then Pope's translation of
Homer. Some combination, all right! When I went to Minneapolis, just
two years ago, I guess I'd read pretty much everything in that Curlew
library, but I'd never heard of Rossetti or John Sargent or Balzac or
Brahms. But----Yump, I'll study. Look here! Shall I get out of this
tailoring, this pressing and repairing?"
"I don't see why a surgeon should spend very much time cobbling shoes."
"But what if I find I can't really draw and design? After fussing around
in New York or Chicago, I'd feel like a fool if I had to go back to work
in a gents' furnishings store!"
"Please say 'haberdashery.'"
"Haberdashery? All right. I'll remember." He shrugged and spread his
She was humbled by his humility; she put away in her mind, to take out
and worry over later, a speculation as to whether it was not she who
was naive. She urged, "What if you do have to go back? Most of us do! We
can't all be artists--myself, for instance. We have to darn socks, and
yet we're not content to think of nothing but socks and darning-cotton.
I'd demand all I could get--whether I finally settled down to designing
frocks or building temples or pressing pants. What if you do drop back?
You'll have had the adventure. Don't be too meek toward life! Go! You're
young, you're unmarried. Try everything! Don't listen to Nat Hicks and
Sam Clark and be a 'steady young man'--in order to help them make
money. You're still a blessed innocent. Go and play till the Good People
"But I don't just want to play. I want to make something beautiful. God!
And I don't know enough. Do you get it? Do you understand? Nobody else
ever has! Do you understand?"
"And so----But here's what bothers me: I like fabrics; dinky things like
that; little drawings and elegant words. But look over there at those
fields. Big! New! Don't it seem kind of a shame to leave this and go
back to the East and Europe, and do what all those people have been
doing so long? Being careful about words, when there's millions of
bushels off wheat here! Reading this fellow Pater, when I've helped Dad
to clear fields!"
"It's good to clear fields. But it's not for you. It's one of our
favorite American myths that broad plains necessarily make broad minds,
and high mountains make high purpose. I thought that myself, when I
first came to the prairie. 'Big--new.' Oh, I don't want to deny the
prairie future. It will be magnificent. But equally I'm hanged if I want
to be bullied by it, go to war on behalf of Main Street, be bullied and
BULLIED by the faith that the future is already here in the present, and
that all of us must stay and worship wheat-stacks and insist that
this is 'God's Country'--and never, of course, do anything original
or gay-colored that would help to make that future! Anyway, you don't
belong here. Sam Clark and Nat Hicks, that's what our big newness has
produced. Go! Before it's too late, as it has been for--for some of us.
Young man, go East and grow up with the revolution! Then perhaps you
may come back and tell Sam and Nat and me what to do with the land we've