|She could only stare.
"I want you to be satisfied when you get there. I'll do everything I can
to keep you happy, but I'll make lots of breaks, so I want you to take
time and think it over."
She was relieved. She still had a chance to seize splendid indefinite
freedoms. She might go--oh, she'd see Europe, somehow, before she was
recaptured. But she also had a firmer respect for Kennicott. She had
fancied that her life might make a story. She knew that there was
nothing heroic or obviously dramatic in it, no magic of rare hours,
nor valiant challenge, but it seemed to her that she was of some
significance because she was commonplaceness, the ordinary life of the
age, made articulate and protesting. It had not occurred to her that
there was also a story of Will Kennicott, into which she entered only so
much as he entered into hers; that he had bewilderments and concealments
as intricate as her own, and soft treacherous desires for sympathy.
Thus she brooded, looking at the amazing sea, holding his hand.
She was in Washington; Kennicott was in Gopher Prairie, writing as dryly
as ever about water-pipes and goose-hunting and Mrs. Fageros's mastoid.
She was talking at dinner to a generalissima of suffrage. Should she
The leader spoke wearily:
"My dear, I'm perfectly selfish. I can't quite visualize the needs of
your husband, and it seems to me that your baby will do quite as well in
the schools here as in your barracks at home."
"Then you think I'd better not go back?" Carol sounded disappointed.
"It's more difficult than that. When I say that I'm selfish I mean that
the only thing I consider about women is whether they're likely to prove
useful in building up real political power for women. And you? Shall I
be frank? Remember when I say 'you' I don't mean you alone. I'm thinking
of thousands of women who come to Washington and New York and
Chicago every year, dissatisfied at home and seeking a sign in the
heavens--women of all sorts, from timid mothers of fifty in cotton
gloves, to girls just out of Vassar who organize strikes in their own
fathers' factories! All of you are more or less useful to me, but only
a few of you can take my place, because I have one virtue (only one): I
have given up father and mother and children for the love of God.
"Here's the test for you: Do you come to 'conquer the East,' as people
say, or do you come to conquer yourself?
"It's so much more complicated than any of you know--so much more
complicated than I knew when I put on Ground Grippers and started out to
reform the world. The final complication in 'conquering Washington' or
'conquering New York' is that the conquerors must beyond all things not
conquer! It must have been so easy in the good old days when authors
dreamed only of selling a hundred thousand volumes, and sculptors
of being feted in big houses, and even the Uplifters like me had a
simple-hearted ambition to be elected to important offices and invited
to go round lecturing. But we meddlers have upset everything. Now the
one thing that is disgraceful to any of us is obvious success. The
Uplifter who is very popular with wealthy patrons can be pretty sure
that he has softened his philosophy to please them, and the author who
is making lots of money--poor things, I've heard 'em apologizing for it
to the shabby bitter-enders; I've seen 'em ashamed of the sleek luggage
they got from movie rights.
"Do you want to sacrifice yourself in such a topsy-turvy world, where
popularity makes you unpopular with the people you love, and the only
failure is cheap success, and the only individualist is the person who
gives up all his individualism to serve a jolly ungrateful proletariat
which thumbs its nose at him?"
Carol smiled ingratiatingly, to indicate that she was indeed one who
desired to sacrifice, but she sighed, "I don't know; I'm afraid I'm not
heroic. I certainly wasn't out home. Why didn't I do big effective----"
"Not a matter of heroism. Matter of endurance. Your Middlewest is
double-Puritan--prairie Puritan on top of New England Puritan; bluff
frontiersman on the surface, but in its heart it still has the ideal of
Plymouth Rock in a sleet-storm. There's one attack you can make on it,
perhaps the only kind that accomplishes much anywhere: you can keep on
looking at one thing after another in your home and church and bank, and
ask why it is, and who first laid down the law that it had to be that
way. If enough of us do this impolitely enough, then we'll become
civilized in merely twenty thousand years or so, instead of having
to wait the two hundred thousand years that my cynical anthropologist
friends allow. . . . Easy, pleasant, lucrative home-work for wives:
asking people to define their jobs. That's the most dangerous doctrine I
Carol was mediating, "I will go back! I will go on asking questions.
I've always done it, and always failed at it, and it's all I can do. I'm
going to ask Ezra Stowbody why he's opposed to the nationalization of
railroads, and ask Dave Dyer why a druggist always is pleased when he's
called 'doctor,' and maybe ask Mrs. Bogart why she wears a widow's veil
that looks like a dead crow."
The woman leader straightened. "And you have one thing. You have a baby
to hug. That's my temptation. I dream of babies--of a baby--and I sneak
around parks to see them playing. (The children in Dupont Circle are
like a poppy-garden.) And the antis call me 'unsexed'!"
Carol was thinking, in panic, "Oughtn't Hugh to have country air? I
won't let him become a yokel. I can guide him away from street-corner
loafing. . . . I think I can."
On her way home: "Now that I've made a precedent, joined the union and
gone out on one strike and learned personal solidarity, I won't be
so afraid. Will won't always be resisting my running away. Some day I
really will go to Europe with him . . . or without him.
"I've lived with people who are not afraid to go to jail. I could invite
a Miles Bjornstam to dinner without being afraid of the Haydocks . . . I
think I could.
"I'll take back the sound of Yvette Guilbert's songs and Elman's violin.
They'll be only the lovelier against the thrumming of crickets in the
stubble on an autumn day.
"I can laugh now and be serene . . . I think I can."
Though she should return, she said, she would not be utterly defeated.
She was glad of her rebellion. The prairie was no longer empty land in
the sun-glare; it was the living tawny beast which she had fought and
made beautiful by fighting; and in the village streets were shadows of
her desires and the sound of her marching and the seeds of mystery and
Her active hatred of Gopher Prairie had run out. She saw it now as a
toiling new settlement. With sympathy she remembered Kennicott's defense
of its citizens as "a lot of pretty good folks, working hard and trying
to bring up their families the best they can." She recalled tenderly the
young awkwardness of Main Street and the makeshifts of the little brown
cottages; she pitied their shabbiness and isolation; had compassion for
their assertion of culture, even as expressed in Thanatopsis papers, for
their pretense of greatness, even as trumpeted in "boosting." She saw
Main Street in the dusty prairie sunset, a line of frontier shanties
with solemn lonely people waiting for her, solemn and lonely as an old
man who has outlived his friends. She remembered that Kennicott and Sam
Clark had listened to her songs, and she wanted to run to them and sing.
"At last," she rejoiced, "I've come to a fairer attitude toward the
town. I can love it, now."
She was, perhaps, rather proud of herself for having acquired so much
She awoke at three in the morning, after a dream of being tortured by
Ella Stowbody and the Widow Bogart.
"I've been making the town a myth. This is how people keep up the
tradition of the perfect home-town, the happy boyhood, the brilliant
college friends. We forget so. I've been forgetting that Main Street
doesn't think it's in the least lonely and pitiful. It thinks it's God's
Own Country. It isn't waiting for me. It doesn't care."
But the next evening she again saw Gopher Prairie as her home, waiting
for her in the sunset, rimmed round with splendor.
She did not return for five months more; five months crammed with greedy
accumulation of sounds and colors to take back for the long still days.
She had spent nearly two years in Washington.
When she departed for Gopher Prairie, in June, her second baby was
stirring within her.
SHE wondered all the way home what her sensations would be. She wondered
about it so much that she had every sensation she had imagined. She was
excited by each familiar porch, each hearty "Well, well!" and flattered
to be, for a day, the most important news of the community. She bustled
about, making calls. Juanita Haydock bubbled over their Washington
encounter, and took Carol to her social bosom. This ancient opponent
seemed likely to be her most intimate friend, for Vida Sherwin, though
she was cordial, stood back and watched for imported heresies.
In the evening Carol went to the mill. The mystical Om-Om-Om of the
dynamos in the electric-light plant behind the mill was louder in the
darkness. Outside sat the night watchman, Champ Perry. He held up his
stringy hands and squeaked, "We've all missed you terrible."
Who in Washington would miss her?
Who in Washington could be depended upon like Guy Pollock? When she saw
him on the street, smiling as always, he seemed an eternal thing, a part
of her own self.
After a week she decided that she was neither glad nor sorry to be back.
She entered each day with the matter-of-fact attitude with which she
had gone to her office in Washington. It was her task; there would be
mechanical details and meaningless talk; what of it?
The only problem which she had approached with emotion proved
insignificant. She had, on the train, worked herself up to such devotion
that she was willing to give up her own room, to try to share all of her
life with Kennicott.
He mumbled, ten minutes after she had entered the house, "Say, I've kept
your room for you like it was. I've kind of come round to your way of
thinking. Don't see why folks need to get on each other's nerves just
because they're friendly. Darned if I haven't got so I like a little
privacy and mulling things over by myself."
She had left a city which sat up nights to talk of universal transition;
of European revolution, guild socialism, free verse. She had fancied
that all the world was changing.
She found that it was not.
In Gopher Prairie the only ardent new topics were prohibition, the place
in Minneapolis where you could get whisky at thirteen dollars a quart,
recipes for home-made beer, the "high cost of living," the presidential
election, Clark's new car, and not very novel foibles of Cy Bogart.
Their problems were exactly what they had been two years ago, what they
had been twenty years ago, and what they would be for twenty years to
come. With the world a possible volcano, the husbandmen were plowing at
the base of the mountain. A volcano does occasionally drop a river
of lava on even the best of agriculturists, to their astonishment and
considerable injury, but their cousins inherit the farms and a year or
two later go back to the plowing.
She was unable to rhapsodize much over the seven new bungalows and the
two garages which Kennicott had made to seem so important. Her intensest
thought about them was, "Oh yes, they're all right I suppose." The
change which she did heed was the erection of the schoolbuilding, with
its cheerful brick walls, broad windows, gymnasium, classrooms for
agriculture and cooking. It indicated Vida's triumph, and it stirred her
to activity--any activity. She went to Vida with a jaunty, "I think I
shall work for you. And I'll begin at the bottom."
She did. She relieved the attendant at the rest-room for an hour a
day. Her only innovation was painting the pine table a black and orange
rather shocking to the Thanatopsis. She talked to the farmwives and
soothed their babies and was happy.
Thinking of them she did not think of the ugliness of Main Street as she
hurried along it to the chatter of the Jolly Seventeen.
She wore her eye-glasses on the street now. She was beginning to ask
Kennicott and Juanita if she didn't look young, much younger than
thirty-three. The eye-glasses pinched her nose. She considered
spectacles. They would make her seem older, and hopelessly settled.
No! She would not wear spectacles yet. But she tried on a pair at
Kennicott's office. They really were much more comfortable.
Dr. Westlake, Sam Clark, Nat Hicks, and Del Snafflin were talking in
Del's barber shop.
"Well, I see Kennicott's wife is taking a whirl at the rest-room, now,"
said Dr. Westlake. He emphasized the "now."
Del interrupted the shaving of Sam and, with his brush dripping lather,
he observed jocularly:
"What'll she be up to next? They say she used to claim this burg wasn't
swell enough for a city girl like her, and would we please tax ourselves
about thirty-seven point nine and fix it all up pretty, with tidies on
the hydrants and statoos on the lawns----"
Sam irritably blew the lather from his lips, with milky small bubbles,
and snorted, "Be a good thing for most of us roughnecks if we did have
a smart woman to tell us how to fix up the town. Just as much to her
kicking as there was to Jim Blausser's gassing about factories. And you
can bet Mrs. Kennicott is smart, even if she is skittish. Glad to see
Dr. Westlake hastened to play safe. "So was I! So was I! She's got a
nice way about her, and she knows a good deal about books, or fiction
anyway. Of course she's like all the rest of these women--not
solidly founded--not scholarly--doesn't know anything about political
economy--falls for every new idea that some windjamming crank puts out.
But she's a nice woman. She'll probably fix up the rest-room, and the
rest-room is a fine thing, brings a lot of business to town. And now
that Mrs. Kennicott's been away, maybe she's got over some of her fool
ideas. Maybe she realizes that folks simply laugh at her when she tries
to tell us how to run everything."
"Sure. She'll take a tumble to herself," said Nat Hicks, sucking in
his lips judicially. "As far as I'm concerned, I'll say she's as nice a
looking skirt as there is in town. But yow!" His tone electrified them.
"Guess she'll miss that Swede Valborg that used to work for me! They was
a pair! Talking poetry and moonshine! If they could of got away with it,
they'd of been so darn lovey-dovey----"
Sam Clark interrupted, "Rats, they never even thought about making love,
Just talking books and all that junk. I tell you, Carrie Kennicott's
a smart woman, and these smart educated women all get funny ideas, but
they get over 'em after they've had three or four kids. You'll see her
settled down one of these days, and teaching Sunday School and helping
at sociables and behaving herself, and not trying to butt into business
and politics. Sure!"
After only fifteen minutes of conference on her stockings, her son, her
separate bedroom, her music, her ancient interest in Guy Pollock, her
probable salary in Washington, and every remark which she was known to
have made since her return, the supreme council decided that they would
permit Carol Kennicott to live, and they passed on to a consideration of
Nat Hicks's New One about the traveling salesman and the old maid.
For some reason which was totally mysterious to Carol, Maud Dyer seemed
to resent her return. At the Jolly Seventeen Maud giggled nervously,
"Well, I suppose you found war-work a good excuse to stay away and have
a swell time. Juanita! Don't you think we ought to make Carrie tell us
about the officers she met in Washington?"
They rustled and stared. Carol looked at them. Their curiosity seemed
natural and unimportant.
"Oh yes, yes indeed, have to do that some day," she yawned.
She no longer took Aunt Bessie Smail seriously enough to struggle for
independence. She saw that Aunt Bessie did not mean to intrude; that
she wanted to do things for all the Kennicotts. Thus Carol hit upon the
tragedy of old age, which is not that it is less vigorous than youth,
but that it is not needed by youth; that its love and prosy sageness,
so important a few years ago, so gladly offered now, are rejected
with laughter. She divined that when Aunt Bessie came in with a jar of
wild-grape jelly she was waiting in hope of being asked for the recipe.
After that she could be irritated but she could not be depressed by Aunt
Bessie's simoom of questioning.
She wasn't depressed even when she heard Mrs. Bogart observe, "Now we've
got prohibition it seems to me that the next problem of the country
ain't so much abolishing cigarettes as it is to make folks observe the
Sabbath and arrest these law-breakers that play baseball and go to the
movies and all on the Lord's Day."
Only one thing bruised Carol's vanity. Few people asked her about
Washington. They who had most admiringly begged Percy Bresnahan for his
opinions were least interested in her facts. She laughed at herself when
she saw that she had expected to be at once a heretic and a returned
hero; she was very reasonable and merry about it; and it hurt just as
much as ever.
Her baby, born in August, was a girl. Carol could not decide whether she
was to become a feminist leader or marry a scientist or both, but did
settle on Vassar and a tricolette suit with a small black hat for her
Hugh was loquacious at breakfast. He desired to give his impressions of
owls and F Street.
"Don't make so much noise. You talk too much," growled Kennicott.
Carol flared. "Don't speak to him that way! Why don't you listen to him?
He has some very interesting things to tell."
"What's the idea? Mean to say you expect me to spend all my time
listening to his chatter?"
"For one thing, he's got to learn a little discipline. Time for him to
start getting educated."
"I've learned much more discipline, I've had much more education, from
him than he has from me."
"What's this? Some new-fangled idea of raising kids you got in
"Perhaps. Did you ever realize that children are people?"
"That's all right. I'm not going to have him monopolizing the
"No, of course. We have our rights, too. But I'm going to bring him up
as a human being. He has just as many thoughts as we have, and I want
him to develop them, not take Gopher Prairie's version of them. That's
my biggest work now--keeping myself, keeping you, from 'educating' him."
"Well, let's not scrap about it. But I'm not going to have him spoiled."
Kennicott had forgotten it in ten minutes; and she forgot it--this time.
The Kennicotts and the Sam Clarks had driven north to a duck-pass
between two lakes, on an autumn day of blue and copper.
Kennicott had given her a light twenty-gauge shotgun. She had a first
lesson in shooting, in keeping her eyes open, not wincing, understanding
that the bead at the end of the barrel really had something to do with
pointing the gun. She was radiant; she almost believed Sam when he
insisted that it was she who had shot the mallard at which they had
She sat on the bank of the reedy lake and found rest in Mrs. Clark's
drawling comments on nothing. The brown dusk was still. Behind them were
dark marshes. The plowed acres smelled fresh. The lake was garnet and
silver. The voices of the men, waiting for the last flight, were clear
in the cool air.
"Mark left!" sang Kennicott, in a long-drawn call.
Three ducks were swooping down in a swift line. The guns banged, and
a duck fluttered. The men pushed their light boat out on the burnished
lake, disappeared beyond the reeds. Their cheerful voices and the slow
splash and clank of oars came back to Carol from the dimness. In the sky
a fiery plain sloped down to a serene harbor. It dissolved; the lake
was white marble; and Kennicott was crying, "Well, old lady, how about
hiking out for home? Supper taste pretty good, eh?"
"I'll sit back with Ethel," she said, at the car.
It was the first time she had called Mrs. Clark by her given name; the
first time she had willingly sat back, a woman of Main Street.
"I'm hungry. It's good to be hungry," she reflected, as they drove away.
She looked across the silent fields to the west. She was conscious of an
unbroken sweep of land to the Rockies, to Alaska, a dominion which
will rise to unexampled greatness when other empires have grown senile.
Before that time, she knew, a hundred generations of Carols will aspire
and go down in tragedy devoid of palls and solemn chanting, the humdrum
inevitable tragedy of struggle against inertia.
"Let's all go to the movies tomorrow night. Awfully exciting film," said
"Well, I was going to read a new book but----All right, let's go," said
"They're too much for me," Carol sighed to Kennicott. "I've been
thinking about getting up an annual Community Day, when the whole town
would forget feuds and go out and have sports and a picnic and a dance.
But Bert Tybee (why did you ever elect him mayor?)--he's kidnapped my
idea. He wants the Community Day, but he wants to have some politician
'give an address.' That's just the stilted sort of thing I've tried to
avoid. He asked Vida, and of course she agreed with him."
Kennicott considered the matter while he wound the clock and they
"Yes, it would jar you to have Bert butting in," he said amiably. "Are
you going to do much fussing over this Community stunt? Don't you ever
get tired of fretting and stewing and experimenting?"
"I haven't even started. Look!" She led him to the nursery door, pointed
at the fuzzy brown head of her daughter. "Do you see that object on the
pillow? Do you know what it is? It's a bomb to blow up smugness. If you