The Project Gutenberg ebook of Main Street, by Sinclair Lewis



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own youth, and though school had begun she rushed in daily to suggest

dances, welsh-rabbit parties.


Fern begged her to go as chaperon to a barn-dance in the country, on a

Saturday evening. Carol could not go. The next day, the storm crashed.


CHAPTER XXXII


I
CAROL was on the back porch, tightening a bolt on the baby's go-cart,

this Sunday afternoon. Through an open window of the Bogart house she

heard a screeching, heard Mrs. Bogart's haggish voice:
" . . . did too, and there's no use your denying it no you don't, you march

yourself right straight out of the house . . . never in my life heard of

such . . . never had nobody talk to me like . . . walk in the ways of sin

and nastiness . . . leave your clothes here, and heaven knows that's more

than you deserve . . . any of your lip or I'll call the policeman."
The voice of the other interlocutor Carol did not catch, nor, though

Mrs. Bogart was proclaiming that he was her confidant and present

assistant, did she catch the voice of Mrs. Bogart's God.
"Another row with Cy," Carol inferred.
She trundled the go-cart down the back steps and tentatively wheeled it

across the yard, proud of her repairs. She heard steps on the sidewalk.

She saw not Cy Bogart but Fern Mullins, carrying a suit-case, hurrying

up the street with her head low. The widow, standing on the porch with

buttery arms akimbo, yammered after the fleeing girl:
"And don't you dare show your face on this block again. You can send the

drayman for your trunk. My house has been contaminated long enough. Why

the Lord should afflict me----"
Fern was gone. The righteous widow glared, banged into the house, came

out poking at her bonnet, marched away. By this time Carol was staring

in a manner not visibly to be distinguished from the window-peeping of

the rest of Gopher Prairie. She saw Mrs. Bogart enter the Howland house,

then the Casses'. Not till suppertime did she reach the Kennicotts. The

doctor answered her ring, and greeted her, "Well, well? how's the good

neighbor?"
The good neighbor charged into the living-room, waving the most unctuous

of black kid gloves and delightedly sputtering:


"You may well ask how I am! I really do wonder how I could go through

the awful scenes of this day--and the impudence I took from that woman's

tongue, that ought to be cut out----"
"Whoa! Whoa! Hold up!" roared Kennicott. "Who's the hussy, Sister

Bogart? Sit down and take it cool and tell us about it."


"I can't sit down, I must hurry home, but I couldn't devote myself to my

own selfish cares till I'd warned you, and heaven knows I don't expect

any thanks for trying to warn the town against her, there's always so

much evil in the world that folks simply won't see or appreciate your

trying to safeguard them----And forcing herself in here to get in with

you and Carrie, many 's the time I've seen her doing it, and, thank

heaven, she was found out in time before she could do any more harm, it

simply breaks my heart and prostrates me to think what she may have done

already, even if some of us that understand and know about things----"
"Whoa-up! Who are you talking about?"
"She's talking about Fern Mullins," Carol put in, not pleasantly.
"Huh?"
Kennicott was incredulous.
"I certainly am!" flourished Mrs. Bogart, "and good and thankful you

may be that I found her out in time, before she could get YOU into

something, Carol, because even if you are my neighbor and Will's wife

and a cultured lady, let me tell you right now, Carol Kennicott, that

you ain't always as respectful to--you ain't as reverent--you don't

stick by the good old ways like they was laid down for us by God in the

Bible, and while of course there ain't a bit of harm in having a good

laugh, and I know there ain't any real wickedness in you, yet just the

same you don't fear God and hate the transgressors of his commandments

like you ought to, and you may be thankful I found out this serpent I

nourished in my bosom--and oh yes! oh yes indeed! my lady must have

two eggs every morning for breakfast, and eggs sixty cents a dozen, and

wa'n't satisfied with one, like most folks--what did she care how much

they cost or if a person couldn't make hardly nothing on her board and

room, in fact I just took her in out of charity and I might have known

from the kind of stockings and clothes that she sneaked into my house in

her trunk----"
Before they got her story she had five more minutes of obscene

wallowing. The gutter comedy turned into high tragedy, with Nemesis

in black kid gloves. The actual story was simple, depressing, and

unimportant. As to details Mrs. Bogart was indefinite, and angry that

she should be questioned.
Fern Mullins and Cy had, the evening before, driven alone to a

barn-dance in the country. (Carol brought out the admission that Fern

had tried to get a chaperon.) At the dance Cy had kissed Fern--she

confessed that. Cy had obtained a pint of whisky; he said that he didn't

remember where he had got it; Mrs. Bogart implied that Fern had given

it to him; Fern herself insisted that he had stolen it from a farmer's

overcoat--which, Mrs. Bogart raged, was obviously a lie. He had become

soggily drunk. Fern had driven him home; deposited him, retching and

wabbling, on the Bogart porch.
Never before had her boy been drunk, shrieked Mrs. Bogart. When

Kennicott grunted, she owned, "Well, maybe once or twice I've smelled

licker on his breath." She also, with an air of being only too

scrupulously exact, granted that sometimes he did not come home till

morning. But he couldn't ever have been drunk, for he always had

the best excuses: the other boys had tempted him to go down the lake

spearing pickerel by torchlight, or he had been out in a "machine that

ran out of gas." Anyway, never before had her boy fallen into the hands

of a "designing woman."
"What do you suppose Miss Mullins could design to do with him?" insisted

Carol.
Mrs. Bogart was puzzled, gave it up, went on. This morning, when she had

faced both of them, Cy had manfully confessed that all of the blame was

on Fern, because the teacher--his own teacher--had dared him to take a

drink. Fern had tried to deny it.
"Then," gabbled Mrs. Bogart, "then that woman had the impudence to

say to me, 'What purpose could I have in wanting the filthy pup to get

drunk?' That's just what she called him--pup. 'I'll have no such nasty

language in my house,' I says, 'and you pretending and pulling the wool

over people's eyes and making them think you're educated and fit to be

a teacher and look out for young people's morals--you're worse 'n any

street-walker!' I says. I let her have it good. I wa'n't going to flinch

from my bounden duty and let her think that decent folks had to stand

for her vile talk. 'Purpose?' I says, 'Purpose? I'll tell you what

purpose you had! Ain't I seen you making up to everything in pants

that'd waste time and pay attention to your impert'nence? Ain't I seen

you showing off your legs with them short skirts of yours, trying

to make out like you was so girlish and la-de-da, running along the

street?'"


Carol was very sick at this version of Fern's eager youth, but she was

sicker as Mrs. Bogart hinted that no one could tell what had happened

between Fern and Cy before the drive home. Without exactly describing

the scene, by her power of lustful imagination the woman suggested dark

country places apart from the lanterns and rude fiddling and banging

dance-steps in the barn, then madness and harsh hateful conquest. Carol

was too sick to interrupt. It was Kennicott who cried, "Oh, for God's

sake quit it! You haven't any idea what happened. You haven't given us a

single proof yet that Fern is anything but a rattle-brained youngster."
"I haven't, eh? Well, what do you say to this? I come straight out and

I says to her, 'Did you or did you not taste the whisky Cy had?' and she

says, 'I think I did take one sip--Cy made me,' she said. She owned up

to that much, so you can imagine----"


"Does that prove her a prostitute?" asked Carol.
"Carrie! Don't you never use a word like that again!" wailed the

outraged Puritan.


"Well, does it prove her to be a bad woman, that she took a taste of

whisky? I've done it myself!"


"That's different. Not that I approve your doing it. What do the

Scriptures tell us? 'Strong drink is a mocker'! But that's entirely

different from a teacher drinking with one of her own pupils."
"Yes, it does sound bad. Fern was silly, undoubtedly. But as a matter

of fact she's only a year or two older than Cy and probably a good many

years younger in experience of vice."
"That's--not--true! She is plenty old enough to corrupt him!
"The job of corrupting Cy was done by your sinless town, five years

ago!"
Mrs. Bogart did not rage in return. Suddenly she was hopeless. Her head

drooped. She patted her black kid gloves, picked at a thread of her

faded brown skirt, and sighed, "He's a good boy, and awful affectionate

if you treat him right. Some thinks he's terrible wild, but that's

because he's young. And he's so brave and truthful--why, he was one of

the first in town that wanted to enlist for the war, and I had to speak

real sharp to him to keep him from running away. I didn't want him to

get into no bad influences round these camps--and then," Mrs. Bogart

rose from her pitifulness, recovered her pace, "then I go and bring into

my own house a woman that's worse, when all's said and done, than any

bad woman he could have met. You say this Mullins woman is too young

and inexperienced to corrupt Cy. Well then, she's too young and

inexperienced to teach him, too, one or t'other, you can't have your

cake and eat it! So it don't make no difference which reason they fire

her for, and that's practically almost what I said to the school-board."


"Have you been telling this story to the members of the school-board?"
"I certainly have! Every one of 'em! And their wives I says to them,

''Tain't my affair to decide what you should or should not do with your

teachers,' I says, 'and I ain't presuming to dictate in any way, shape,

manner, or form. I just want to know,' I says, 'whether you're going

to go on record as keeping here in our schools, among a lot of innocent

boys and girls, a woman that drinks, smokes, curses, uses bad language,

and does such dreadful things as I wouldn't lay tongue to but you know

what I mean,' I says, 'and if so, I'll just see to it that the town

learns about it.' And that's what I told Professor Mott, too, being

superintendent--and he's a righteous man, not going autoing on the

Sabbath like the school-board members. And the professor as much as

admitted he was suspicious of the Mullins woman himself."

II

Kennicott was less shocked and much less frightened than Carol, and more



articulate in his description of Mrs. Bogart, when she had gone.
Maud Dyer telephoned to Carol and, after a rather improbable question

about cooking lima beans with bacon, demanded, "Have you heard the

scandal about this Miss Mullins and Cy Bogart?"
"I'm sure it's a lie."
"Oh, probably is." Maud's manner indicated that the falsity of the story

was an insignificant flaw in its general delightfulness.


Carol crept to her room, sat with hands curled tight together as she

listened to a plague of voices. She could hear the town yelping with it,

every soul of them, gleeful at new details, panting to win importance by

having details of their own to add. How well they would make up for what

they had been afraid to do by imagining it in another! They who had

not been entirely afraid (but merely careful and sneaky), all the

barber-shop roues and millinery-parlor mondaines, how archly they

were giggling (this second--she could hear them at it); with what

self-commendation they were cackling their suavest wit: "You can't tell

ME she ain't a gay bird; I'm wise!"


And not one man in town to carry out their pioneer tradition of superb

and contemptuous cursing, not one to verify the myth that their "rough

chivalry" and "rugged virtues" were more generous than the petty

scandal-picking of older lands, not one dramatic frontiersman to

thunder, with fantastic and fictional oaths, "What are you hinting

at? What are you snickering at? What facts have you? What are these

unheard-of sins you condemn so much--and like so well?"
No one to say it. Not Kennicott nor Guy Pollock nor Champ Perry.
Erik? Possibly. He would sputter uneasy protest.
She suddenly wondered what subterranean connection her interest in Erik

had with this affair. Wasn't it because they had been prevented by her

caste from bounding on her own trail that they were howling at Fern?

III


Before supper she found, by half a dozen telephone calls, that Fern had

fled to the Minniemashie House. She hastened there, trying not to be

self-conscious about the people who looked at her on the street. The

clerk said indifferently that he "guessed" Miss Mullins was up in Room

37, and left Carol to find the way. She hunted along the stale-smelling

corridors with their wallpaper of cerise daisies and poison-green

rosettes, streaked in white spots from spilled water, their frayed red

and yellow matting, and rows of pine doors painted a sickly blue. She

could not find the number. In the darkness at the end of a corridor she

had to feel the aluminum figures on the door-panels. She was startled

once by a man's voice: "Yep? Whadyuh want?" and fled. When she reached

the right door she stood listening. She made out a long sobbing. There

was no answer till her third knock; then an alarmed "Who is it? Go

away!"
Her hatred of the town turned resolute as she pushed open the door.


Yesterday she had seen Fern Mullins in boots and tweed skirt and

canary-yellow sweater, fleet and self-possessed. Now she lay across

the bed, in crumpled lavender cotton and shabby pumps, very feminine,

utterly cowed. She lifted her head in stupid terror. Her hair was in

tousled strings and her face was sallow, creased. Her eyes were a blur

from weeping.


"I didn't! I didn't!" was all she would say at first, and she repeated

it while Carol kissed her cheek, stroked her hair, bathed her forehead.

She rested then, while Carol looked about the room--the welcome to

strangers, the sanctuary of hospitable Main Street, the lucrative

property of Kennicott's friend, Jackson Elder. It smelled of old linen

and decaying carpet and ancient tobacco smoke. The bed was rickety,

with a thin knotty mattress; the sand-colored walls were scratched and

gouged; in every corner, under everything, were fluffy dust and cigar

ashes; on the tilted wash-stand was a nicked and squatty pitcher; the

only chair was a grim straight object of spotty varnish; but there was

an altogether splendid gilt and rose cuspidor.
She did not try to draw out Fern's story; Fern insisted on telling it.
She had gone to the party, not quite liking Cy but willing to endure him

for the sake of dancing, of escaping from Mrs. Bogart's flow of moral

comments, of relaxing after the first strained weeks of teaching. Cy

"promised to be good." He was, on the way out. There were a few workmen

from Gopher Prairie at the dance, with many young farm-people. Half

a dozen squatters from a degenerate colony in a brush-hidden hollow,

planters of potatoes, suspected thieves, came in noisily drunk. They all

pounded the floor of the barn in old-fashioned square dances, swinging

their partners, skipping, laughing, under the incantations of Del

Snafflin the barber, who fiddled and called the figures. Cy had two

drinks from pocket-flasks. Fern saw him fumbling among the overcoats

piled on the feedbox at the far end of the barn; soon after she heard a

farmer declaring that some one had stolen his bottle. She taxed Cy with

the theft; he chuckled, "Oh, it's just a joke; I'm going to give it

back." He demanded that she take a drink. Unless she did, he wouldn't

return the bottle.


"I just brushed my lips with it, and gave it back to him," moaned Fern.

She sat up, glared at Carol. "Did you ever take a drink?"


"I have. A few. I'd love to have one right now! This contact with

righteousness has about done me up!"


Fern could laugh then. "So would I! I don't suppose I've had five drinks

in my life, but if I meet just one more Bogart and Son----Well, I didn't

really touch that bottle--horrible raw whisky--though I'd have loved

some wine. I felt so jolly. The barn was almost like a stage scene--the

high rafters, and the dark stalls, and tin lanterns swinging, and a

silage-cutter up at the end like some mysterious kind of machine. And

I'd been having lots of fun dancing with the nicest young farmer, so

strong and nice, and awfully intelligent. But I got uneasy when I saw

how Cy was. So I doubt if I touched two drops of the beastly stuff. Do

you suppose God is punishing me for even wanting wine?"


"My dear, Mrs. Bogart's god may be--Main Street's god. But all the

courageous intelligent people are fighting him . . . though he slay us."


Fern danced again with the young farmer; she forgot Cy while she was

talking with a girl who had taken the University agricultural course.

Cy could not have returned the bottle; he came staggering toward

her--taking time to make himself offensive to every girl on the way

and to dance a jig. She insisted on their returning. Cy went with her,

chuckling and jigging. He kissed her, outside the door. . . . "And

to think I used to think it was interesting to have men kiss you at

a dance!". . . She ignored the kiss, in the need of getting him home

before he started a fight. A farmer helped her harness the buggy, while

Cy snored in the seat. He awoke before they set out; all the way home he

alternately slept and tried to make love to her.
"I'm almost as strong as he is. I managed to keep him away while I

drove--such a rickety buggy. I didn't feel like a girl; I felt like a

scrubwoman--no, I guess I was too scared to have any feelings at all. It

was terribly dark. I got home, somehow. But it was hard, the time I had

to get out, and it was quite muddy, to read a sign-post--I lit matches

that I took from Cy's coat pocket, and he followed me--he fell off

the buggy step into the mud, and got up and tried to make love to me,

and----I was scared. But I hit him. Quite hard. And got in, and so he

ran after the buggy, crying like a baby, and I let him in again, and

right away again he was trying----But no matter. I got him home. Up on

the porch. Mrs. Bogart was waiting up. . . .
"You know, it was funny; all the time she was--oh, talking to me--and Cy

was being terribly sick--I just kept thinking, 'I've still got to drive

the buggy down to the livery stable. I wonder if the livery man will be

awake?' But I got through somehow. I took the buggy down to the stable,

and got to my room. I locked my door, but Mrs. Bogart kept saying

things, outside the door. Stood out there saying things about me,

dreadful things, and rattling the knob. And all the while I could hear

Cy in the back yard-being sick. I don't think I'll ever marry any man.

And then today----
"She drove me right out of the house. She wouldn't listen to me, all

morning. Just to Cy. I suppose he's over his headache now. Even at

breakfast he thought the whole thing was a grand joke. I suppose right

this minute he's going around town boasting about his 'conquest.' You

understand--oh, DON'T you understand? I DID keep him away! But I don't

see how I can face my school. They say country towns are fine for

bringing up boys in, but----I can't believe this is me, lying here and

saying this. I don't BELIEVE what happened last night.


"Oh. This was curious: When I took off my dress last night--it was a

darling dress, I loved it so, but of course the mud had spoiled it. I

cried over it and----No matter. But my white silk stockings were all

torn, and the strange thing is, I don't know whether I caught my legs

in the briers when I got out to look at the sign-post, or whether Cy

scratched me when I was fighting him off."

IV

Sam Clark was president of the school-board. When Carol told him Fern's



story Sam looked sympathetic and neighborly, and Mrs. Clark sat by

cooing, "Oh, isn't that too bad." Carol was interrupted only when Mrs.

Clark begged, "Dear, don't speak so bitter about 'pious' people. There's

lots of sincere practising Christians that are real tolerant. Like the

Champ Perrys."
"Yes. I know. Unfortunately there are enough kindly people in the

churches to keep them going."


When Carol had finished, Mrs. Clark breathed, "Poor girl; I don't doubt

her story a bit," and Sam rumbled, "Yuh, sure. Miss Mullins is young and

reckless, but everybody in town, except Ma Bogart, knows what Cy is. But

Miss Mullins was a fool to go with him."


"But not wicked enough to pay for it with disgrace?"
"N-no, but----" Sam avoided verdicts, clung to the entrancing horrors

of the story. "Ma Bogart cussed her out all morning, did she? Jumped her

neck, eh? Ma certainly is one hell-cat."
"Yes, you know how she is; so vicious."
"Oh no, her best style ain't her viciousness. What she pulls in our

store is to come in smiling with Christian Fortitude and keep a clerk

busy for one hour while she picks out half a dozen fourpenny nails. I

remember one time----"


"Sam!" Carol was uneasy. "You'll fight for Fern, won't you? When Mrs.

Bogart came to see you did she make definite charges?"


"Well, yes, you might say she did."
"But the school-board won't act on them?"
"Guess we'll more or less have to."
"But you'll exonerate Fern?"
"I'll do what I can for the girl personally, but you know what the board

is. There's Reverend Zitterel; Sister Bogart about half runs his church,

so of course he'll take her say-so; and Ezra Stowbody, as a banker he

has to be all hell for morality and purity. Might 's well admit it,

Carrie; I'm afraid there'll be a majority of the board against her. Not

that any of us would believe a word Cy said, not if he swore it on a

stack of Bibles, but still, after all this gossip, Miss Mullins wouldn't

hardly be the party to chaperon our basket-ball team when it went out of

town to play other high schools, would she!"

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