"But it's really absolutely New-Yorkish."
"You see, I know my New York styles. I lived in New York for years,
besides almost a year in Akron!"
"You did?" Carol was polite, and edged away, and went home unhappily.
She was wondering whether her own airs were as laughable as Mrs.
Swiftwaite's. She put on the eye-glasses which Kennicott had recently
given to her for reading, and looked over a grocery bill. She
went hastily up to her room, to her mirror. She was in a mood of
self-depreciation. Accurately or not, this was the picture she saw in
Neat rimless eye-glasses. Black hair clumsily tucked under a mauve straw
hat which would have suited a spinster. Cheeks clear, bloodless. Thin
nose. Gentle mouth and chin. A modest voile blouse with an edging of
lace at the neck. A virginal sweetness and timorousness--no flare of
gaiety, no suggestion of cities, music, quick laughter.
"I have become a small-town woman. Absolute. Typical. Modest and moral
and safe. Protected from life. GENTEEL! The Village Virus--the village
virtuousness. My hair--just scrambled together. What can Erik see in
that wedded spinster there? He does like me! Because I'm the only woman
who's decent to him! How long before he'll wake up to me? . . . I've
waked up to myself. . . . Am I as old as--as old as I am?
"Not really old. Become careless. Let myself look tabby.
"I want to chuck every stitch I own. Black hair and pale cheeks--they'd
go with a Spanish dancer's costume--rose behind my ear, scarlet mantilla
over one shoulder, the other bare."
She seized the rouge sponge, daubed her cheeks, scratched at her lips
with the vermilion pencil until they stung, tore open her collar. She
posed with her thin arms in the attitude of the fandango. She dropped
them sharply. She shook her head. "My heart doesn't dance," she said.
She flushed as she fastened her blouse.
"At least I'm much more graceful than Fern Mullins. Heavens! When I came
here from the Cities, girls imitated me. Now I'm trying to imitate a
FERN Mullins rushed into the house on a Saturday morning early in
September and shrieked at Carol, "School starts next Tuesday. I've got
to have one more spree before I'm arrested. Let's get up a picnic down
the lake for this afternoon. Won't you come, Mrs. Kennicott, and the
doctor? Cy Bogart wants to go--he's a brat but he's lively."
"I don't think the doctor can go," sedately. "He said something about
having to make a country call this afternoon. But I'd love to."
"That's dandy! Who can we get?"
"Mrs. Dyer might be chaperon. She's been so nice. And maybe Dave, if he
could get away from the store."
"How about Erik Valborg? I think he's got lots more style than these
town boys. You like him all right, don't you?"
So the picnic of Carol, Fern, Erik, Cy Bogart, and the Dyers was not
only moral but inevitable.
They drove to the birch grove on the south shore of Lake Minniemashie.
Dave Dyer was his most clownish self. He yelped, jigged, wore Carol's
hat, dropped an ant down Fern's back, and when they went swimming (the
women modestly changing in the car with the side curtains up, the men
undressing behind the bushes, constantly repeating, "Gee, hope we don't
run into poison ivy"), Dave splashed water on them and dived to clutch
his wife's ankle. He infected the others. Erik gave an imitation of
the Greek dancers he had seen in vaudeville, and when they sat down to
picnic supper spread on a lap-robe on the grass, Cy climbed a tree to
throw acorns at them.
But Carol could not frolic.
She had made herself young, with parted hair, sailor blouse and large
blue bow, white canvas shoes and short linen skirt. Her mirror had
asserted that she looked exactly as she had in college, that her throat
was smooth, her collar-bone not very noticeable. But she was under
restraint. When they swam she enjoyed the freshness of the water but
she was irritated by Cy's tricks, by Dave's excessive good spirits. She
admired Erik's dance; he could never betray bad taste, as Cy did,
and Dave. She waited for him to come to her. He did not come. By his
joyousness he had apparently endeared himself to the Dyers. Maud watched
him and, after supper, cried to him, "Come sit down beside me, bad boy!"
Carol winced at his willingness to be a bad boy and come and sit, at
his enjoyment of a not very stimulating game in which Maud, Dave, and
Cy snatched slices of cold tongue from one another's plates. Maud, it
seemed, was slightly dizzy from the swim. She remarked publicly, "Dr.
Kennicott has helped me so much by putting me on a diet," but it was
to Erik alone that she gave the complete version of her peculiarity in
being so sensitive, so easily hurt by the slightest cross word, that she
simply had to have nice cheery friends.
Erik was nice and cheery.
Carol assured herself, "Whatever faults I may have, I certainly couldn't
ever be jealous. I do like Maud; she's always so pleasant. But I wonder
if she isn't just a bit fond of fishing for men's sympathy? Playing
with Erik, and her married----Well----But she looks at him in that
languishing, swooning, mid-Victorian way. Disgusting!"
Cy Bogart lay between the roots of a big birch, smoking his pipe and
teasing Fern, assuring her that a week from now, when he was again a
high-school boy and she his teacher, he'd wink at her in class. Maud
Dyer wanted Erik to "come down to the beach to see the darling little
minnies." Carol was left to Dave, who tried to entertain her with
humorous accounts of Ella Stowbody's fondness for chocolate peppermints.
She watched Maud Dyer put her hand on Erik's shoulder to steady herself.
"Disgusting!" she thought.
Cy Bogart covered Fern's nervous hand with his red paw, and when she
bounced with half-anger and shrieked, "Let go, I tell you!" he grinned
and waved his pipe--a gangling twenty-year-old satyr.
When Maud and Erik returned and the grouping shifted, Erik muttered at
Carol, "There's a boat on shore. Let's skip off and have a row."
"What will they think?" she worried. She saw Maud Dyer peer at Erik with
moist possessive eyes. "Yes! Let's!" she said.
She cried to the party, with the canonical amount of sprightliness,
"Good-by, everybody. We'll wireless you from China."
As the rhythmic oars plopped and creaked, as she floated on an unreality
of delicate gray over which the sunset was poured out thin, the
irritation of Cy and Maud slipped away. Erik smiled at her proudly. She
considered him--coatless, in white thin shirt. She was conscious of his
male differentness, of his flat masculine sides, his thin thighs, his
easy rowing. They talked of the library, of the movies. He hummed and
she softly sang "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot." A breeze shivered across the
agate lake. The wrinkled water was like armor damascened and polished.
The breeze flowed round the boat in a chill current. Carol drew the
collar of her middy blouse over her bare throat.
"Getting cold. Afraid we'll have to go back," she said.
"Let's not go back to them yet. They'll be cutting up. Let's keep along
"But you enjoy the 'cutting up!' Maud and you had a beautiful time."
"Why! We just walked on the shore and talked about fishing!"
She was relieved, and apologetic to her friend Maud. "Of course. I was
"I'll tell you! Let's land here and sit on the shore--that bunch of
hazel-brush will shelter us from the wind--and watch the sunset. It's
like melted lead. Just a short while! We don't want to go back and
listen to them!"
"No, but----" She said nothing while he sped ashore. The keel clashed
on the stones. He stood on the forward seat, holding out his hand.
They were alone, in the ripple-lapping silence. She rose slowly, slowly
stepped over the water in the bottom of the old boat. She took his hand
confidently. Unspeaking they sat on a bleached log, in a russet twilight
which hinted of autumn. Linden leaves fluttered about them.
"I wish----Are you cold now?" he whispered.
"A little." She shivered. But it was not with cold.
"I wish we could curl up in the leaves there, covered all up, and lie
looking out at the dark."
"I wish we could." As though it was comfortably understood that he did
not mean to be taken seriously.
"Like what all the poets say--brown nymph and faun."
"No. I can't be a nymph any more. Too old----Erik, am I old? Am I faded
"Why, you're the youngest----Your eyes are like a girl's. They're
so--well, I mean, like you believed everything. Even if you do teach
me, I feel a thousand years older than you, instead of maybe a year
"Four or five years younger!"
"Anyway, your eyes are so innocent and your cheeks so soft----Damn it,
it makes me want to cry, somehow, you're so defenseless; and I want to
protect you and----There's nothing to protect you against!"
"Am I young? Am I? Honestly? Truly?" She betrayed for a moment the
childish, mock-imploring tone that comes into the voice of the most
serious woman when an agreeable man treats her as a girl; the childish
tone and childish pursed-up lips and shy lift of the cheek.
"Yes, you are!"
"You're dear to believe it, Will--ERIK!"
"Will you play with me? A lot?"
"Would you really like to curl in the leaves and watch the stars swing
"I think it's rather better to be sitting here!" He twined his fingers
with hers. "And Erik, we must go back."
"It's somewhat late to outline all the history of social custom!"
"I know. We must. Are you glad we ran away though?"
"Yes." She was quiet, perfectly simple. But she rose.
He circled her waist with a brusque arm. She did not resist. She did
not care. He was neither a peasant tailor, a potential artist, a
social complication, nor a peril. He was himself, and in him, in the
personality flowing from him, she was unreasoningly content. In his
nearness she caught a new view of his head; the last light brought out
the planes of his neck, his flat ruddied cheeks, the side of his nose,
the depression of his temples. Not as coy or uneasy lovers but as
companions they walked to the boat, and he lifted her up on the prow.
She began to talk intently, as he rowed: "Erik, you've got to work! You
ought to be a personage. You're robbed of your kingdom. Fight for it!
Take one of these correspondence courses in drawing--they mayn't be any
good in themselves, but they'll make you try to draw and----"
As they reached the picnic ground she perceived that it was dark, that
they had been gone for a long time.
"What will they say?" she wondered.
The others greeted them with the inevitable storm of humor and slight
vexation: "Where the deuce do you think you've been?" "You're a fine
pair, you are!" Erik and Carol looked self-conscious; failed in their
effort to be witty. All the way home Carol was embarrassed. Once Cy
winked at her. That Cy, the Peeping Tom of the garage-loft, should
consider her a fellow-sinner----She was furious and frightened and
exultant by turns, and in all her moods certain that Kennicott would
read her adventuring in her face.
She came into the house awkwardly defiant.
Her husband, half asleep under the lamp, greeted her, "Well, well, have
She could not answer. He looked at her. But his look did not sharpen.
He began to wind his watch, yawning the old "Welllllll, guess it's about
time to turn in."
That was all. Yet she was not glad. She was almost disappointed.
Mrs. Bogart called next day. She had a hen-like, crumb-pecking, diligent
appearance. Her smile was too innocent. The pecking started instantly:
"Cy says you had lots of fun at the picnic yesterday. Did you enjoy it?"
"Oh yes. I raced Cy at swimming. He beat me badly. He's so strong, isn't
"Poor boy, just crazy to get into the war, too, but----This Erik Valborg
was along, wa'n't he?"
"I think he's an awful handsome fellow, and they say he's smart. Do you
"He seems very polite."
"Cy says you and him had a lovely boat-ride. My, that must have been
"Yes, except that I couldn't get Mr. Valborg to say a word. I wanted
to ask him about the suit Mr. Hicks is making for my husband. But he
insisted on singing. Still, it was restful, floating around on the water
and singing. So happy and innocent. Don't you think it's a shame, Mrs.
Bogart, that people in this town don't do more nice clean things like
that, instead of all this horrible gossiping?"
"Yes. . . . Yes."
Mrs. Bogart sounded vacant. Her bonnet was awry; she was incomparably
dowdy. Carol stared at her, felt contemptuous, ready at last to rebel
against the trap, and as the rusty goodwife fished again, "Plannin' some
more picnics?" she flung out, "I haven't the slightest idea! Oh. Is that
Hugh crying? I must run up to him."
But up-stairs she remembered that Mrs. Bogart had seen her walking
with Erik from the railroad track into town, and she was chilly with
At the Jolly Seventeen, two days after, she was effusive to Maud Dyer,
to Juanita Haydock. She fancied that every one was watching her, but
she could not be sure, and in rare strong moments she did not care.
She could rebel against the town's prying now that she had something,
however indistinct, for which to rebel.
In a passionate escape there must be not only a place from which to flee
but a place to which to flee. She had known that she would gladly leave
Gopher Prairie, leave Main Street and all that it signified, but she
had had no destination. She had one now. That destination was not Erik
Valborg and the love of Erik. She continued to assure herself that she
wasn't in love with him but merely "fond of him, and interested in his
success." Yet in him she had discovered both her need of youth and the
fact that youth would welcome her. It was not Erik to whom she must
escape, but universal and joyous youth, in class-rooms, in studios, in
offices, in meetings to protest against Things in General. . . . But
universal and joyous youth rather resembled Erik.
All week she thought of things she wished to say to him. High, improving
things. She began to admit that she was lonely without him. Then she was
It was at the Baptist church supper, a week after the picnic, that
she saw him again. She had gone with Kennicott and Aunt Bessie to the
supper, which was spread on oilcloth-covered and trestle-supported
tables in the church basement. Erik was helping Myrtle Cass to fill
coffee cups for the waitresses. The congregation had doffed their
piety. Children tumbled under the tables, and Deacon Pierson greeted the
women with a rolling, "Where's Brother Jones, sister, where's Brother
Jones? Not going to be with us tonight? Well, you tell Sister Perry to
hand you a plate, and make 'em give you enough oyster pie!"
Erik shared in the cheerfulness. He laughed with Myrtle, jogged her
elbow when she was filling cups, made deep mock bows to the waitresses
as they came up for coffee. Myrtle was enchanted by his humor. From the
other end of the room, a matron among matrons, Carol observed
Myrtle, and hated her, and caught herself at it. "To be jealous of
a wooden-faced village girl!" But she kept it up. She detested Erik;
gloated over his gaucheries--his "breaks," she called them. When he
was too expressive, too much like a Russian dancer, in saluting Deacon
Pierson, Carol had the ecstasy of pain in seeing the deacon's sneer.
When, trying to talk to three girls at once, he dropped a cup and
effeminately wailed, "Oh dear!" she sympathized with--and ached
over--the insulting secret glances of the girls.
From meanly hating him she rose to compassion as she saw that his eyes
begged every one to like him. She perceived how inaccurate her judgments
could be. At the picnic she had fancied that Maud Dyer looked upon Erik
too sentimentally, and she had snarled, "I hate these married women who
cheapen themselves and feed on boys." But at the supper Maud was one of
the waitresses; she bustled with platters of cake, she was pleasant to
old women; and to Erik she gave no attention at all. Indeed, when she
had her own supper, she joined the Kennicotts, and how ludicrous it was
to suppose that Maud was a gourmet of emotions Carol saw in the fact
that she talked not to one of the town beaux but to the safe Kennicott
When Carol glanced at Erik again she discovered that Mrs. Bogart had
an eye on her. It was a shock to know that at last there was something
which could make her afraid of Mrs. Bogart's spying.
"What am I doing? Am I in love with Erik? Unfaithful? I? I want youth
but I don't want him--I mean, I don't want youth--enough to break up my
life. I must get out of this. Quick."
She said to Kennicott on their way home, "Will! I want to run away for a
few days. Wouldn't you like to skip down to Chicago?"
"Still be pretty hot there. No fun in a big city till winter. What do
you want to go for?"
"People! To occupy my mind. I want stimulus."
"Stimulus?" He spoke good-naturedly. "Who's been feeding you meat? You
got that 'stimulus' out of one of these fool stories about wives that
don't know when they're well off. Stimulus! Seriously, though, to cut
out the jollying, I can't get away."
"Then why don't I run off by myself?"
"Why----'Tisn't the money, you understand. But what about Hugh?"
"Leave him with Aunt Bessie. It would be just for a few days."
"I don't think much of this business of leaving kids around. Bad for
"So you don't think----"
"I'll tell you: I think we better stay put till after the war. Then
we'll have a dandy long trip. No, I don't think you better plan much
about going away now."
So she was thrown at Erik.
She awoke at ebb-time, at three of the morning, woke sharply and fully;
and sharply and coldly as her father pronouncing sentence on a cruel
swindler she gave judgment:
"A pitiful and tawdry love-affair.
"No splendor, no defiance. A self-deceived little woman whispering in
corners with a pretentious little man.
"No, he is not. He is fine. Aspiring. It's not his fault. His eyes are
sweet when he looks at me. Sweet, so sweet."
She pitied herself that her romance should be pitiful; she sighed that
in this colorless hour, to this austere self, it should seem tawdry.
Then, in a very great desire of rebellion and unleashing of all her
hatreds, "The pettier and more tawdry it is, the more blame to Main
Street. It shows how much I've been longing to escape. Any way out! Any
humility so long as I can flee. Main Street has done this to me. I came
here eager for nobilities, ready for work, and now----Any way out.
"I came trusting them. They beat me with rods of dullness. They don't
know, they don't understand how agonizing their complacent dullness is.
Like ants and August sun on a wound.
"Tawdry! Pitiful! Carol--the clean girl that used to walk so
fast!--sneaking and tittering in dark corners, being sentimental and
jealous at church suppers!"
At breakfast-time her agonies were night-blurred, and persisted only as
a nervous irresolution.
Few of the aristocrats of the Jolly Seventeen attended the humble
folk-meets of the Baptist and Methodist church suppers, where the Willis
Woodfords, the Dillons, the Champ Perrys, Oleson the butcher, Brad Bemis
the tinsmith, and Deacon Pierson found release from loneliness. But all
of the smart set went to the lawn-festivals of the Episcopal Church, and
were reprovingly polite to outsiders.
The Harry Haydocks gave the last lawn-festival of the season; a splendor
of Japanese lanterns and card-tables and chicken patties and Neapolitan
ice-cream. Erik was no longer entirely an outsider. He was eating his
ice-cream with a group of the people most solidly "in"--the Dyers,
Myrtle Cass, Guy Pollock, the Jackson Elders. The Haydocks themselves
kept aloof, but the others tolerated him. He would never, Carol fancied,
be one of the town pillars, because he was not orthodox in hunting and
motoring and poker. But he was winning approbation by his liveliness,
his gaiety--the qualities least important in him.
When the group summoned Carol she made several very well-taken points in
regard to the weather.
Myrtle cried to Erik, "Come on! We don't belong with these old folks.
I want to make you 'quainted with the jolliest girl, she comes from
Wakamin, she's staying with Mary Howland."
Carol saw him being profuse to the guest from Wakamin. She saw him
confidentially strolling with Myrtle. She burst out to Mrs. Westlake,
"Valborg and Myrtle seem to have quite a crush on each other."
Mrs. Westlake glanced at her curiously before she mumbled, "Yes, don't
"I'm mad, to talk this way," Carol worried.
She had regained a feeling of social virtue by telling Juanita Haydock
"how darling her lawn looked with the Japanese lanterns" when she saw
that Erik was stalking her. Though he was merely ambling about with his
hands in his pockets, though he did not peep at her, she knew that he
was calling her. She sidled away from Juanita. Erik hastened to her. She
nodded coolly (she was proud of her coolness).
"Carol! I've got a wonderful chance! Don't know but what some ways
it might be better than going East to take art. Myrtle Cass says----I
dropped in to say howdy to Myrtle last evening, and had quite a long
talk with her father, and he said he was hunting for a fellow to go to
work in the flour mill and learn the whole business, and maybe become
general manager. I know something about wheat from my farming, and I
worked a couple of months in the flour mill at Curlew when I got sick of
tailoring. What do you think? You said any work was artistic if it was
done by an artist. And flour is so important. What do you think?"
This sensitive boy would be very skilfully stamped into conformity by
Lyman Cass and his sallow daughter; but did she detest the plan for this
reason? "I must be honest. I mustn't tamper with his future to please my
vanity." But she had no sure vision. She turned on him: