The Project Gutenberg ebook of Main Street, by Sinclair Lewis



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"How can I decide? It's up to you. Do you want to become a person like

Lym Cass, or do you want to become a person like--yes, like me! Wait!

Don't be flattering. Be honest. This is important."
"I know. I am a person like you now! I mean, I want to rebel."
"Yes. We're alike," gravely.
"Only I'm not sure I can put through my schemes. I really can't draw

much. I guess I have pretty fair taste in fabrics, but since I've known

you I don't like to think about fussing with dress-designing. But as a

miller, I'd have the means--books, piano, travel."


"I'm going to be frank and beastly. Don't you realize that it isn't just

because her papa needs a bright young man in the mill that Myrtle is

amiable to you? Can't you understand what she'll do to you when she has

you, when she sends you to church and makes you become respectable?"


He glared at her. "I don't know. I suppose so."
"You are thoroughly unstable!"
"What if I am? Most fish out of water are! Don't talk like Mrs. Bogart!

How can I be anything but 'unstable'--wandering from farm to tailor

shop to books, no training, nothing but trying to make books talk to

me! Probably I'll fail. Oh, I know it; probably I'm uneven. But I'm not

unstable in thinking about this job in the mill--and Myrtle. I know what

I want. I want you!"


"Please, please, oh, please!"
"I do. I'm not a schoolboy any more. I want you. If I take Myrtle, it's

to forget you."


"Please, please!"
"It's you that are unstable! You talk at things and play at things, but

you're scared. Would I mind it if you and I went off to poverty, and I

had to dig ditches? I would not! But you would. I think you would come

to like me, but you won't admit it. I wouldn't have said this, but when

you sneer at Myrtle and the mill----If I'm not to have good sensible

things like those, d' you think I'll be content with trying to become a

damn dressmaker, after YOU? Are you fair? Are you?"
"No, I suppose not."
"Do you like me? Do you?"
"Yes----No! Please! I can't talk any more."
"Not here. Mrs. Haydock is looking at us."
"No, nor anywhere. O Erik, I am fond of you, but I'm afraid."
"What of?"
"Of Them! Of my rulers--Gopher Prairie. . . . My dear boy, we are

talking very foolishly. I am a normal wife and a good mother, and you

are--oh, a college freshman."
"You do like me! I'm going to make you love me!"
She looked at him once, recklessly, and walked away with a serene gait

that was a disordered flight.


Kennicott grumbled on their way home, "You and this Valborg fellow seem

quite chummy."


"Oh, we are. He's interested in Myrtle Cass, and I was telling him how

nice she is."


In her room she marveled, "I have become a liar. I'm snarled with lies

and foggy analyses and desires--I who was clear and sure."


She hurried into Kennicott's room, sat on the edge of his bed. He

flapped a drowsy welcoming hand at her from the expanse of quilt and

dented pillows.
"Will, I really think I ought to trot off to St. Paul or Chicago or some

place."
"I thought we settled all that, few nights ago! Wait till we can have a

real trip." He shook himself out of his drowsiness. "You might give me a

good-night kiss."


She did--dutifully. He held her lips against his for an intolerable

time. "Don't you like the old man any more?" he coaxed. He sat up and

shyly fitted his palm about the slimness of her waist.
"Of course. I like you very much indeed." Even to herself it sounded

flat. She longed to be able to throw into her voice the facile passion

of a light woman. She patted his cheek.
He sighed, "I'm sorry you're so tired. Seems like----But of course you

aren't very strong."


"Yes. . . . Then you don't think--you're quite sure I ought to stay here

in town?"


"I told you so! I certainly do!"
She crept back to her room, a small timorous figure in white.
"I can't face Will down--demand the right. He'd be obstinate. And I

can't even go off and earn my living again. Out of the habit of it. He's

driving me----I'm afraid of what he's driving me to. Afraid.
"That man in there, snoring in stale air, my husband? Could any ceremony

make him my husband?


"No. I don't want to hurt him. I want to love him. I can't, when I'm

thinking of Erik. Am I too honest--a funny topsy-turvy honesty--the

faithfulness of unfaith? I wish I had a more compartmental mind, like

men. I'm too monogamous--toward Erik!--my child Erik, who needs me.


"Is an illicit affair like a gambling debt--demands stricter honor than

the legitimate debt of matrimony, because it's not legally enforced?


"That's nonsense! I don't care in the least for Erik! Not for any man. I

want to be let alone, in a woman world--a world without Main Street,

or politicians, or business men, or men with that sudden beastly hungry

look, that glistening unfrank expression that wives know----


"If Erik were here, if he would just sit quiet and kind and talk, I

could be still, I could go to sleep.


"I am so tired. If I could sleep----"

CHAPTER XXXI


THEIR night came unheralded.
Kennicott was on a country call. It was cool but Carol huddled on the

porch, rocking, meditating, rocking. The house was lonely and repellent,

and though she sighed, "I ought to go in and read--so many things to

read--ought to go in," she remained. Suddenly Erik was coming, turning

in, swinging open the screen door, touching her hand.
"Erik!"
"Saw your husband driving out of town. Couldn't stand it."
"Well----You mustn't stay more than five minutes."
"Couldn't stand not seeing you. Every day, towards evening, felt I had

to see you--pictured you so clear. I've been good though, staying away,

haven't I!"
"And you must go on being good."
"Why must I?"
"We better not stay here on the porch. The Howlands across the street

are such window-peepers, and Mrs. Bogart----"


She did not look at him but she could divine his tremulousness as he

stumbled indoors. A moment ago the night had been coldly empty; now it

was incalculable, hot, treacherous. But it is women who are the calm

realists once they discard the fetishes of the premarital hunt. Carol

was serene as she murmured, "Hungry? I have some little honey-colored

cakes. You may have two, and then you must skip home."


"Take me up and let me see Hugh asleep."
"I don't believe----"
"Just a glimpse!"
"Well----"
She doubtfully led the way to the hallroom-nursery. Their heads close,

Erik's curls pleasant as they touched her cheek, they looked in at the

baby. Hugh was pink with slumber. He had burrowed into his pillow with

such energy that it was almost smothering him. Beside it was a celluloid

rhinoceros; tight in his hand a torn picture of Old King Cole.
"Shhh!" said Carol, quite automatically. She tiptoed in to pat the

pillow. As she returned to Erik she had a friendly sense of his waiting

for her. They smiled at each other. She did not think of Kennicott, the

baby's father. What she did think was that some one rather like Erik, an

older and surer Erik, ought to be Hugh's father. The three of them would

play--incredible imaginative games.


"Carol! You've told me about your own room. Let me peep in at it."
"But you mustn't stay, not a second. We must go downstairs."
"Yes."
"Will you be good?"
"R-reasonably!" He was pale, large-eyed, serious.
"You've got to be more than reasonably good!" She felt sensible and

superior; she was energetic about pushing open the door.


Kennicott had always seemed out of place there but Erik surprisingly

harmonized with the spirit of the room as he stroked the books, glanced

at the prints. He held out his hands. He came toward her. She was weak,

betrayed to a warm softness. Her head was tilted back. Her eyes were

closed. Her thoughts were formless but many-colored. She felt his kiss,

diffident and reverent, on her eyelid.


Then she knew that it was impossible.
She shook herself. She sprang from him. "Please!" she said sharply.
He looked at her unyielding.
"I am fond of you," she said. "Don't spoil everything. Be my friend."
"How many thousands and millions of women must have said that! And now

you! And it doesn't spoil everything. It glorifies everything."


"Dear, I do think there's a tiny streak of fairy in you--whatever you do

with it. Perhaps I'd have loved that once. But I won't. It's too late.

But I'll keep a fondness for you. Impersonal--I will be impersonal! It

needn't be just a thin talky fondness. You do need me, don't you? Only

you and my son need me. I've wanted so to be wanted! Once I wanted

love to be given to me. Now I'll be content if I can give. . . . Almost

content!
"We women, we like to do things for men. Poor men! We swoop on you when

you're defenseless and fuss over you and insist on reforming you. But

it's so pitifully deep in us. You'll be the one thing in which I haven't

failed. Do something definite! Even if it's just selling cottons. Sell

beautiful cottons--caravans from China----"
"Carol! Stop! You do love me!"
"I do not! It's just----Can't you understand? Everything crushes in on

me so, all the gaping dull people, and I look for a way out----Please

go. I can't stand any more. Please!"
He was gone. And she was not relieved by the quiet of the house. She was

empty and the house was empty and she needed him. She wanted to go

on talking, to get this threshed out, to build a sane friendship. She

wavered down to the living-room, looked out of the bay-window. He was

not to be seen. But Mrs. Westlake was. She was walking past, and in

the light from the corner arc-lamp she quickly inspected the porch, the

windows. Carol dropped the curtain, stood with movement and reflection

paralyzed. Automatically, without reasoning, she mumbled, "I will see

him again soon and make him understand we must be friends. But----The

house is so empty. It echoes so."

II

Kennicott had seemed nervous and absent-minded through that supper-hour,



two evenings after. He prowled about the living-room, then growled:
"What the dickens have you been saying to Ma Westlake?"
Carol's book rattled. "What do you mean?"
"I told you that Westlake and his wife were jealous of us, and here you

been chumming up to them and----From what Dave tells me, Ma Westlake has

been going around town saying you told her that you hate Aunt Bessie,

and that you fixed up your own room because I snore, and you said

Bjornstam was too good for Bea, and then, just recent, that you were

sore on the town because we don't all go down on our knees and beg this

Valborg fellow to come take supper with us. God only knows what else she

says you said."


"It's not true, any of it! I did like Mrs. Westlake, and I've called on

her, and apparently she's gone and twisted everything I've said----"


"Sure. Of course she would. Didn't I tell you she would? She's an old

cat, like her pussyfooting, hand-holding husband. Lord, if I was sick,

I'd rather have a faith-healer than Westlake, and she's another slice

off the same bacon. What I can't understand though----"


She waited, taut.
"----is whatever possessed you to let her pump you, bright a girl as

you are. I don't care what you told her--we all get peeved sometimes

and want to blow off steam, that's natural--but if you wanted to keep it

dark, why didn't you advertise it in the Dauntless, or get a megaphone

and stand on top of the hotel and holler, or do anything besides spill

it to her!"


"I know. You told me. But she was so motherly. And I didn't have any

woman----Vida 's become so married and proprietary."


"Well, next time you'll have better sense."
He patted her head, flumped down behind his newspaper, said nothing

more.
Enemies leered through the windows, stole on her from the hall. She had

no one save Erik. This kind good man Kennicott--he was an elder

brother. It was Erik, her fellow outcast, to whom she wanted to run for

sanctuary. Through her storm she was, to the eye, sitting quietly with

her fingers between the pages of a baby-blue book on home-dressmaking.

But her dismay at Mrs. Westlake's treachery had risen to active dread.

What had the woman said of her and Erik? What did she know? What had she

seen? Who else would join in the baying hunt? Who else had seen her

with Erik? What had she to fear from the Dyers, Cy Bogart, Juanita, Aunt

Bessie? What precisely had she answered to Mrs. Bogart's questioning?
All next day she was too restless to stay home, yet as she walked the

streets on fictitious errands she was afraid of every person she met.

She waited for them to speak; waited with foreboding. She repeated, "I

mustn't ever see Erik again." But the words did not register. She had no

ecstatic indulgence in the sense of guilt which is, to the women of Main

Street, the surest escape from blank tediousness.


At five, crumpled in a chair in the living-room, she started at the

sound of the bell. Some one opened the door. She waited, uneasy. Vida

Sherwin charged into the room. "Here's the one person I can trust!"

Carol rejoiced.


Vida was serious but affectionate. She bustled at Carol with, "Oh, there

you are, dearie, so glad t' find you in, sit down, want to talk to you."


Carol sat, obedient.
Vida fussily tugged over a large chair and launched out:
"I've been hearing vague rumors you were interested in this Erik

Valborg. I knew you couldn't be guilty, and I'm surer than ever of it

now. Here we are, as blooming as a daisy."
"How does a respectable matron look when she feels guilty?"
Carol sounded resentful.
"Why----Oh, it would show! Besides! I know that you, of all people, are

the one that can appreciate Dr. Will."


"What have you been hearing?"
"Nothing, really. I just heard Mrs. Bogart say she'd seen you and

Valborg walking together a lot." Vida's chirping slackened. She looked

at her nails. "But----I suspect you do like Valborg. Oh, I don't mean in

any wrong way. But you're young; you don't know what an innocent liking

might drift into. You always pretend to be so sophisticated and all,

but you're a baby. Just because you are so innocent, you don't know what

evil thoughts may lurk in that fellow's brain."
"You don't suppose Valborg could actually think about making love to

me?"
Her rather cheap sport ended abruptly as Vida cried, with contorted

face, "What do you know about the thoughts in hearts? You just play at

reforming the world. You don't know what it means to suffer."


There are two insults which no human being will endure: the assertion

that he hasn't a sense of humor, and the doubly impertinent assertion

that he has never known trouble. Carol said furiously, "You think I

don't suffer? You think I've always had an easy----"


"No, you don't. I'm going to tell you something I've never told a living

soul, not even Ray." The dam of repressed imagination which Vida had

builded for years, which now, with Raymie off at the wars, she was

building again, gave way.


"I was--I liked Will terribly well. One time at a party--oh, before

he met you, of course--but we held hands, and we were so happy. But I

didn't feel I was really suited to him. I let him go. Please don't think

I still love him! I see now that Ray was predestined to be my mate. But

because I liked him, I know how sincere and pure and noble Will is, and

his thoughts never straying from the path of rectitude, and----If I gave

him up to you, at least you've got to appreciate him! We danced together

and laughed so, and I gave him up, but----This IS my affair! I'm NOT

intruding! I see the whole thing as he does, because of all I've told

you. Maybe it's shameless to bare my heart this way, but I do it for

him--for him and you!"
Carol understood that Vida believed herself to have recited minutely and

brazenly a story of intimate love; understood that, in alarm, she was

trying to cover her shame as she struggled on, "Liked him in the most

honorable way--simply can't help it if I still see things through

his eyes----If I gave him up, I certainly am not beyond my rights

in demanding that you take care to avoid even the appearance of evil

and----" She was weeping; an insignificant, flushed, ungracefully

weeping woman.


Carol could not endure it. She ran to Vida, kissed her forehead,

comforted her with a murmur of dove-like sounds, sought to reassure her

with worn and hastily assembled gifts of words: "Oh, I appreciate it so

much," and "You are so fine and splendid," and "Let me assure you there

isn't a thing to what you've heard," and "Oh, indeed, I do know how

sincere Will is, and as you say, so--so sincere."


Vida believed that she had explained many deep and devious matters. She

came out of her hysteria like a sparrow shaking off rain-drops. She sat

up, and took advantage of her victory:
"I don't want to rub it in, but you can see for yourself now, this is

all a result of your being so discontented and not appreciating the dear

good people here. And another thing: People like you and me, who want to

reform things, have to be particularly careful about appearances. Think

how much better you can criticize conventional customs if you yourself

live up to them, scrupulously. Then people can't say you're attacking

them to excuse your own infractions."
To Carol was given a sudden great philosophical understanding, an

explanation of half the cautious reforms in history. "Yes. I've heard

that plea. It's a good one. It sets revolts aside to cool. It keeps

strays in the flock. To word it differently: 'You must live up to the

popular code if you believe in it; but if you don't believe in it, then

you MUST live up to it!'"


"I don't think so at all," said Vida vaguely. She began to look hurt,

and Carol let her be oracular.

III

Vida had done her a service; had made all agonizing seem so fatuous that



she ceased writhing and saw that her whole problem was simple as mutton:

she was interested in Erik's aspiration; interest gave her a hesitating

fondness for him; and the future would take care of the event. . . .

But at night, thinking in bed, she protested, "I'm not a falsely

accused innocent, though! If it were some one more resolute than Erik, a

fighter, an artist with bearded surly lips----They're only in books.

Is that the real tragedy, that I never shall know tragedy, never find

anything but blustery complications that turn out to be a farce?


"No one big enough or pitiful enough to sacrifice for. Tragedy in

neat blouses; the eternal flame all nice and safe in a kerosene stove.

Neither heroic faith nor heroic guilt. Peeping at love from behind lace

curtains--on Main Street!"


Aunt Bessie crept in next day, tried to pump her, tried to prime the

pump by again hinting that Kennicott might have his own affairs. Carol

snapped, "Whatever I may do, I'll have you to understand that Will is

only too safe!" She wished afterward that she had not been so lofty. How

much would Aunt Bessie make of "Whatever I may do?"
When Kennicott came home he poked at things, and hemmed, and brought

out, "Saw aunty, this afternoon. She said you weren't very polite to

her."
Carol laughed. He looked at her in a puzzled way and fled to his

newspaper.

IV

She lay sleepless. She alternately considered ways of leaving Kennicott,



and remembered his virtues, pitied his bewilderment in face of the

subtle corroding sicknesses which he could not dose nor cut out. Didn't

he perhaps need her more than did the book-solaced Erik? Suppose Will

were to die, suddenly. Suppose she never again saw him at breakfast,

silent but amiable, listening to her chatter. Suppose he never again

played elephant for Hugh. Suppose----A country call, a slippery road,

his motor skidding, the edge of the road crumbling, the car turning

turtle, Will pinned beneath, suffering, brought home maimed, looking at

her with spaniel eyes--or waiting for her, calling for her, while she

was in Chicago, knowing nothing of it. Suppose he were sued by some

vicious shrieking woman for malpractice. He tried to get witnesses;

Westlake spread lies; his friends doubted him; his self-confidence was

so broken that it was horrible to see the indecision of the decisive

man; he was convicted, handcuffed, taken on a train----


She ran to his room. At her nervous push the door swung sharply in,

struck a chair. He awoke, gasped, then in a steady voice: "What is it,

dear? Anything wrong?" She darted to him, fumbled for the familiar harsh

bristly cheek. How well she knew it, every seam, and hardness of bone,

and roll of fat! Yet when he sighed, "This is a nice visit," and dropped

his hand on her thin-covered shoulder, she said, too cheerily, "I

thought I heard you moaning. So silly of me. Good night, dear."

V

She did not see Erik for a fortnight, save once at church and once when



she went to the tailor shop to talk over the plans, contingencies, and

strategy of Kennicott's annual campaign for getting a new suit. Nat

Hicks was there, and he was not so deferential as he had been. With

unnecessary jauntiness he chuckled, "Some nice flannels, them

samples, heh?" Needlessly he touched her arm to call attention to the

fashion-plates, and humorously he glanced from her to Erik. At home she

wondered if the little beast might not be suggesting himself as a rival

to Erik, but that abysmal bedragglement she would not consider.


She saw Juanita Haydock slowly walking past the house--as Mrs. Westlake

had once walked past.


She met Mrs. Westlake in Uncle Whittier's store, and before that alert

stare forgot her determination to be rude, and was shakily cordial.


She was sure that all the men on the street, even Guy Pollock and Sam

Clark, leered at her in an interested hopeful way, as though she were

a notorious divorcee. She felt as insecure as a shadowed criminal. She

wished to see Erik, and wished that she had never seen him. She fancied

that Kennicott was the only person in town who did not know all--know

incomparably more than there was to know--about herself and Erik. She

crouched in her chair as she imagined men talking of her, thick-voiced,

obscene, in barber shops and the tobacco-stinking pool parlor.


Through early autumn Fern Mullins was the only person who broke the

suspense. The frivolous teacher had come to accept Carol as of her

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