The Project Gutenberg ebook of Main Street, by Sinclair Lewis



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been clearing--if we'll listen--if we don't lynch you first!"
He looked at her reverently. She could hear him saying,
"I've always wanted to know a woman who would talk to me like that."
Her hearing was faulty. He was saying nothing of the sort. He was

saying:
"Why aren't you happy with your husband?"


"I--you----"
"He doesn't care for the 'blessed innocent' part of you, does he!"
"Erik, you mustn't----"
"First you tell me to go and be free, and then you say that I

'mustn't'!"


"I know. But you mustn't----You must be more impersonal!"
He glowered at her like a downy young owl. She wasn't sure but she

thought that he muttered, "I'm damned if I will." She considered with

wholesome fear the perils of meddling with other people's destinies, and

she said timidly, "Hadn't we better start back now?"


He mused, "You're younger than I am. Your lips are for songs about

rivers in the morning and lakes at twilight. I don't see how anybody

could ever hurt you. . . . Yes. We better go."
He trudged beside her, his eyes averted. Hugh experimentally took his

thumb. He looked down at the baby seriously. He burst out, "All right.

I'll do it. I'll stay here one year. Save. Not spend so much money on

clothes. And then I'll go East, to art-school. Work on the side-tailor

shop, dressmaker's. I'll learn what I'm good for: designing clothes,

stage-settings, illustrating, or selling collars to fat men. All

settled." He peered at her, unsmiling.
"Can you stand it here in town for a year?"
"With you to look at?"
"Please! I mean: Don't the people here think you're an odd bird? (They

do me, I assure you!)"


"I don't know. I never notice much. Oh, they do kid me about not being

in the army--especially the old warhorses, the old men that aren't going

themselves. And this Bogart boy. And Mr. Hicks's son--he's a horrible

brat. But probably he's licensed to say what he thinks about his

father's hired man!"
"He's beastly!"
They were in town. They passed Aunt Bessie's house. Aunt Bessie and

Mrs. Bogart were at the window, and Carol saw that they were staring so

intently that they answered her wave only with the stiffly raised hands

of automatons. In the next block Mrs. Dr. Westlake was gaping from her

porch. Carol said with an embarrassed quaver:
"I want to run in and see Mrs. Westlake. I'll say good-by here."
She avoided his eyes.
Mrs. Westlake was affable. Carol felt that she was expected to explain;

and while she was mentally asserting that she'd be hanged if she'd

explain, she was explaining:
"Hugh captured that Valborg boy up the track. They became such good

friends. And I talked to him for a while. I'd heard he was eccentric,

but really, I found him quite intelligent. Crude, but he reads--reads

almost the way Dr. Westlake does."


"That's fine. Why does he stick here in town? What's this I hear about

his being interested in Myrtle Cass?"


"I don't know. Is he? I'm sure he isn't! He said he was quite lonely!

Besides, Myrtle is a babe in arms!"


"Twenty-one if she's a day!"
"Well----Is the doctor going to do any hunting this fall?"

II

The need of explaining Erik dragged her back into doubting. For all his



ardent reading, and his ardent life, was he anything but a small-town

youth bred on an illiberal farm and in cheap tailor shops? He had rough

hands. She had been attracted only by hands that were fine and suave,

like those of her father. Delicate hands and resolute purpose. But this

boy--powerful seamed hands and flabby will.
"It's not appealing weakness like his, but sane strength that will

animate the Gopher Prairies. Only----Does that mean anything? Or am

I echoing Vida? The world has always let 'strong' statesmen and

soldiers--the men with strong voices--take control, and what have the

thundering boobies done? What is 'strength'?
"This classifying of people! I suppose tailors differ as much as

burglars or kings.


"Erik frightened me when he turned on me. Of course he didn't mean

anything, but I mustn't let him be so personal.


"Amazing impertinence!
"But he didn't mean to be.
"His hands are FIRM. I wonder if sculptors don't have thick hands, too?
"Of course if there really is anything I can do to HELP the boy----
"Though I despise these people who interfere. He must be independent."

III


She wasn't altogether pleased, the week after, when Erik was independent

and, without asking for her inspiration, planned the tennis tournament.

It proved that he had learned to play in Minneapolis; that, next to

Juanita Haydock, he had the best serve in town. Tennis was well spoken

of in Gopher Prairie and almost never played. There were three courts:

one belonging to Harry Haydock, one to the cottages at the lake, and

one, a rough field on the outskirts, laid out by a defunct tennis

association.


Erik had been seen in flannels and an imitation panama hat, playing on

the abandoned court with Willis Woodford, the clerk in Stowbody's bank.

Suddenly he was going about proposing the reorganization of the tennis

association, and writing names in a fifteen-cent note-book bought for

the purpose at Dyer's. When he came to Carol he was so excited over

being an organizer that he did not stop to talk of himself and Aubrey

Beardsley for more than ten minutes. He begged, "Will you get some of

the folks to come in?" and she nodded agreeably.


He proposed an informal exhibition match to advertise the association;

he suggested that Carol and himself, the Haydocks, the Woodfords, and

the Dillons play doubles, and that the association be formed from

the gathered enthusiasts. He had asked Harry Haydock to be tentative

president. Harry, he reported, had promised, "All right. You bet. But

you go ahead and arrange things, and I'll O.K. 'em." Erik planned that

the match should be held Saturday afternoon, on the old public court

at the edge of town. He was happy in being, for the first time, part of

Gopher Prairie.
Through the week Carol heard how select an attendance there was to be.
Kennicott growled that he didn't care to go.
Had he any objections to her playing with Erik?
No; sure not; she needed the exercise. Carol went to the match early.

The court was in a meadow out on the New Antonia road. Only Erik was

there. He was dashing about with a rake, trying to make the court

somewhat less like a plowed field. He admitted that he had stage fright

at the thought of the coming horde. Willis and Mrs. Woodford arrived,

Willis in home-made knickers and black sneakers through at the toe;

then Dr. and Mrs. Harvey Dillon, people as harmless and grateful as the

Woodfords.


Carol was embarrassed and excessively agreeable, like the bishop's lady

trying not to feel out of place at a Baptist bazaar.


They waited.
The match was scheduled for three. As spectators there assembled one

youthful grocery clerk, stopping his Ford delivery wagon to stare from

the seat, and one solemn small boy, tugging a smaller sister who had a

careless nose.


"I wonder where the Haydocks are? They ought to show up, at least," said

Erik.
Carol smiled confidently at him, and peered down the empty road toward

town. Only heat-waves and dust and dusty weeds.
At half-past three no one had come, and the grocery boy reluctantly got

out, cranked his Ford, glared at them in a disillusioned manner, and

rattled away. The small boy and his sister ate grass and sighed.
The players pretended to be exhilarated by practising service, but they

startled at each dust-cloud from a motor car. None of the cars turned

into the meadow-none till a quarter to four, when Kennicott drove in.
Carol's heart swelled. "How loyal he is! Depend on him! He'd come,

if nobody else did. Even though he doesn't care for the game. The old

darling!"
Kennicott did not alight. He called out, "Carrie! Harry Haydock 'phoned

me that they've decided to hold the tennis matches, or whatever you call

'em, down at the cottages at the lake, instead of here. The bunch are

down there now: Haydocks and Dyers and Clarks and everybody. Harry

wanted to know if I'd bring you down. I guess I can take the time--come

right back after supper."


Before Carol could sum it all up, Erik stammered, "Why, Haydock didn't

say anything to me about the change. Of course he's the president,

but----"
Kennicott looked at him heavily, and grunted, "I don't know a thing

about it. . . . Coming, Carrie?"


"I am not! The match was to be here, and it will be here! You can tell

Harry Haydock that he's beastly rude!" She rallied the five who had

been left out, who would always be left out. "Come on! We'll toss to

see which four of us play the Only and Original First Annual Tennis

Tournament of Forest Hills, Del Monte, and Gopher Prairie!"
"Don't know as I blame you," said Kennicott. "Well have supper at home

then?" He drove off.


She hated him for his composure. He had ruined her defiance. She felt

much less like Susan B. Anthony as she turned to her huddled followers.


Mrs. Dillon and Willis Woodford lost the toss. The others played out

the game, slowly, painfully, stumbling on the rough earth, muffing the

easiest shots, watched only by the small boy and his sniveling sister.

Beyond the court stretched the eternal stubble-fields. The four

marionettes, awkwardly going through exercises, insignificant in the hot

sweep of contemptuous land, were not heroic; their voices did not ring

out in the score, but sounded apologetic; and when the game was over

they glanced about as though they were waiting to be laughed at.


They walked home. Carol took Erik's arm. Through her thin linen sleeve

she could feel the crumply warmth of his familiar brown jersey coat. She

observed that there were purple and red gold threads interwoven with the

brown. She remembered the first time she had seen it.


Their talk was nothing but improvisations on the theme: "I never did

like this Haydock. He just considers his own convenience." Ahead

of them, the Dillons and Woodfords spoke of the weather and B. J.

Gougerling's new bungalow. No one referred to their tennis tournament.

At her gate Carol shook hands firmly with Erik and smiled at him.
Next morning, Sunday morning, when Carol was on the porch, the Haydocks

drove up.


"We didn't mean to be rude to you, dearie!" implored Juanita. "I

wouldn't have you think that for anything. We planned that Will and you

should come down and have supper at our cottage."
"No. I'm sure you didn't mean to be." Carol was super-neighborly. "But

I do think you ought to apologize to poor Erik Valborg. He was terribly

hurt."
"Oh. Valborg. I don't care so much what he thinks," objected Harry.

"He's nothing but a conceited buttinsky. Juanita and I kind of figured

he was trying to run this tennis thing too darn much anyway."
"But you asked him to make arrangements."
"I know, but I don't like him. Good Lord, you couldn't hurt his

feelings! He dresses up like a chorus man--and, by golly, he looks like

one!--but he's nothing but a Swede farm boy, and these foreigners, they

all got hides like a covey of rhinoceroses ."


"But he IS hurt!"
"Well----I don't suppose I ought to have gone off half-cocked, and not

jollied him along. I'll give him a cigar. He'll----"


Juanita had been licking her lips and staring at Carol. She interrupted

her husband, "Yes, I do think Harry ought to fix it up with him. You

LIKE him, DON'T you, Carol??"
Over and through Carol ran a frightened cautiousness. "Like him? I

haven't an í-dea. He seems to be a very decent young man. I just felt

that when he'd worked so hard on the plans for the match, it was a shame

not to be nice to him."


"Maybe there's something to that," mumbled Harry; then, at sight of

Kennicott coming round the corner tugging the red garden hose by its

brass nozzle, he roared in relief, "What d' you think you're trying to

do, doc?"


While Kennicott explained in detail all that he thought he was trying

to do, while he rubbed his chin and gravely stated, "Struck me the grass

was looking kind of brown in patches--didn't know but what I'd give it

a sprinkling," and while Harry agreed that this was an excellent

idea, Juanita made friendly noises and, behind the gilt screen of an

affectionate smile, watched Carol's face.

IV

She wanted to see Erik. She wanted some one to play with! There wasn't



even so dignified and sound an excuse as having Kennicott's trousers

pressed; when she inspected them, all three pairs looked discouragingly

neat. She probably would not have ventured on it had she not spied Nat

Hicks in the pool-parlor, being witty over bottle-pool. Erik was alone!

She fluttered toward the tailor shop, dashed into its slovenly heat

with the comic fastidiousness of a humming bird dipping into a dry

tiger-lily. It was after she had entered that she found an excuse.
Erik was in the back room, cross-legged on a long table, sewing a vest.

But he looked as though he were doing this eccentric thing to amuse

himself.
"Hello. I wonder if you couldn't plan a sports-suit for me?" she said

breathlessly.


He stared at her; he protested, "No, I won't! God! I'm not going to be a

tailor with you!"


"Why, Erik!" she said, like a mildly shocked mother.
It occurred to her that she did not need a suit, and that the order

might have been hard to explain to Kennicott.


He swung down from the table. "I want to show you something." He

rummaged in the roll-top desk on which Nat Hicks kept bills, buttons,

calendars, buckles, thread-channeled wax, shotgun shells, samples of

brocade for "fancy vests," fishing-reels, pornographic post-cards,

shreds of buckram lining. He pulled out a blurred sheet of Bristol board

and anxiously gave it to her. It was a sketch for a frock. It was not

well drawn; it was too finicking; the pillars in the background were

grotesquely squat. But the frock had an original back, very low, with

a central triangular section from the waist to a string of jet beads at

the neck.


"It's stunning. But how it would shock Mrs. Clark!"
"Yes, wouldn't it!"
"You must let yourself go more when you're drawing."
"Don't know if I can. I've started kind of late. But listen! What do you

think I've done this two weeks? I've read almost clear through a Latin

grammar, and about twenty pages of Caesar."
"Splendid! You are lucky. You haven't a teacher to make you artificial."
"You're my teacher!"
There was a dangerous edge of personality to his voice. She was offended

and agitated. She turned her shoulder on him, stared through the back

window, studying this typical center of a typical Main Street block,

a vista hidden from casual strollers. The backs of the chief

establishments in town surrounded a quadrangle neglected, dirty, and

incomparably dismal. From the front, Howland & Gould's grocery was smug

enough, but attached to the rear was a lean-to of storm streaked pine

lumber with a sanded tar roof--a staggering doubtful shed behind which

was a heap of ashes, splintered packing-boxes, shreds of excelsior,

crumpled straw-board, broken olive-bottles, rotten fruit, and utterly

disintegrated vegetables: orange carrots turning black, and potatoes

with ulcers. The rear of the Bon Ton Store was grim with blistered

black-painted iron shutters, under them a pile of once glossy red

shirt-boxes, now a pulp from recent rain.


As seen from Main Street, Oleson & McGuire's Meat Market had a sanitary

and virtuous expression with its new tile counter, fresh sawdust on the

floor, and a hanging veal cut in rosettes. But she now viewed a back

room with a homemade refrigerator of yellow smeared with black grease.

A man in an apron spotted with dry blood was hoisting out a hard slab of

meat.
Behind Billy's Lunch, the cook, in an apron which must long ago have

been white, smoked a pipe and spat at the pest of sticky flies. In the

center of the block, by itself, was the stable for the three horses of

the drayman, and beside it a pile of manure.
The rear of Ezra Stowbody's bank was whitewashed, and back of it was

a concrete walk and a three-foot square of grass, but the window was

barred, and behind the bars she saw Willis Woodford cramped over figures

in pompous books. He raised his head, jerkily rubbed his eyes, and went

back to the eternity of figures.
The backs of the other shops were an impressionistic picture of dirty

grays, drained browns, writhing heaps of refuse.


"Mine is a back-yard romance--with a journeyman tailor!"
She was saved from self-pity as she began to think through Erik's mind.

She turned to him with an indignant, "It's disgusting that this is all

you have to look at."
He considered it. "Outside there? I don't notice much. I'm learning to

look inside. Not awful easy!"


"Yes. . . . I must be hurrying."
As she walked home--without hurrying--she remembered her father saying

to a serious ten-year-old Carol, "Lady, only a fool thinks he's superior

to beautiful bindings, but only a double-distilled fool reads nothing

but bindings."


She was startled by the return of her father, startled by a sudden

conviction that in this flaxen boy she had found the gray reticent judge

who was divine love, perfect under-standing. She debated it, furiously

denied it, reaffirmed it, ridiculed it. Of one thing she was unhappily

certain: there was nothing of the beloved father image in Will

Kennicott.

V

She wondered why she sang so often, and why she found so many pleasant



things--lamplight seen though trees on a cool evening, sunshine on brown

wood, morning sparrows, black sloping roofs turned to plates of silver

by moonlight. Pleasant things, small friendly things, and pleasant

places--a field of goldenrod, a pasture by the creek--and suddenly

a wealth of pleasant people. Vida was lenient to Carol at the

surgical-dressing class; Mrs. Dave Dyer flattered her with questions

about her health, baby, cook, and opinions on the war.
Mrs. Dyer seemed not to share the town's prejudice against Erik. "He's

a nice-looking fellow; we must have him go on one of our picnics some

time." Unexpectedly, Dave Dyer also liked him. The tight-fisted little

farceur had a confused reverence for anything that seemed to him refined

or clever. He answered Harry Haydock's sneers, "That's all right now!

Elizabeth may doll himself up too much, but he's smart, and don't you

forget it! I was asking round trying to find out where this Ukraine is,

and darn if he didn't tell me. What's the matter with his talking so

polite? Hell's bells, Harry, no harm in being polite. There's some

regular he-men that are just as polite as women, prett' near."


Carol found herself going about rejoicing, "How neighborly the town is!"

She drew up with a dismayed "Am I falling in love with this boy? That's

ridiculous! I'm merely interested in him. I like to think of helping him

to succeed."


But as she dusted the living-room, mended a collar-band, bathed Hugh,

she was picturing herself and a young artistan Apollo nameless and

evasive--building a house in the Berkshires or in Virginia; exuberantly

buying a chair with his first check; reading poetry together, and

frequently being earnest over valuable statistics about labor; tumbling

out of bed early for a Sunday walk, and chattering (where Kennicott

would have yawned) over bread and butter by a lake. Hugh was in her

pictures, and he adored the young artist, who made castles of chairs and

rugs for him. Beyond these playtimes she saw the "things I could do for

Erik"--and she admitted that Erik did partly make up the image of her

altogether perfect artist.
In panic she insisted on being attentive to Kennicott, when he wanted to

be left alone to read the newspaper.

VI

She needed new clothes. Kennicott had promised, "We'll have a good trip



down to the Cities in the fall, and take plenty of time for it, and you

can get your new glad-rags then." But as she examined her wardrobe she

flung her ancient black velvet frock on the floor and raged, "They're

disgraceful. Everything I have is falling to pieces."


There was a new dressmaker and milliner, a Mrs. Swiftwaite. It was

said that she was not altogether an elevating influence in the way she

glanced at men; that she would as soon take away a legally appropriated

husband as not; that if there WAS any Mr. Swiftwaite, "it certainly was

strange that nobody seemed to know anything about him!" But she had made

for Rita Gould an organdy frock and hat to match universally admitted

to be "too cunning for words," and the matrons went cautiously,

with darting eyes and excessive politeness, to the rooms which Mrs.

Swiftwaite had taken in the old Luke Dawson house, on Floral Avenue.
With none of the spiritual preparation which normally precedes the

buying of new clothes in Gopher Prairie, Carol marched into Mrs.

Swiftwaite's, and demanded, "I want to see a hat, and possibly a

blouse."
In the dingy old front parlor which she had tried to make smart with a

pier glass, covers from fashion magazines, anemic French prints, Mrs.

Swiftwaite moved smoothly among the dress-dummies and hat-rests, spoke

smoothly as she took up a small black and red turban. "I am sure the

lady will find this extremely attractive."


"It's dreadfully tabby and small-towny," thought Carol, while she

soothed, "I don't believe it quite goes with me."


"It's the choicest thing I have, and I'm sure you'll find it suits you

beautifully. It has a great deal of chic. Please try it on," said Mrs.

Swiftwaite, more smoothly than ever.
Carol studied the woman. She was as imitative as a glass diamond. She

was the more rustic in her effort to appear urban. She wore a severe

high-collared blouse with a row of small black buttons, which

was becoming to her low-breasted slim neatness, but her skirt was

hysterically checkered, her cheeks were too highly rouged, her lips too

sharply penciled. She was magnificently a specimen of the illiterate

divorcee of forty made up to look thirty, clever, and alluring.
While she was trying on the hat Carol felt very condescending. She took

it off, shook her head, explained with the kind smile for inferiors,

"I'm afraid it won't do, though it's unusually nice for so small a town

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