The Project Gutenberg ebook of Main Street, by Sinclair Lewis

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"Perhaps not, but couldn't some one else?"
"Why, that's one of the things she was hired for." Sam sounded stubborn.
"Do you realize that this isn't just a matter of a job, and hiring and

firing; that it's actually sending a splendid girl out with a beastly

stain on her, giving all the other Bogarts in the world a chance at her?

That's what will happen if you discharge her."

Sam moved uncomfortably, looked at his wife, scratched his head, sighed,

said nothing.

"Won't you fight for her on the board? If you lose, won't you, and

whoever agrees with you, make a minority report?"

"No reports made in a case like this. Our rule is to just decide the

thing and announce the final decision, whether it's unanimous or not."

"Rules! Against a girl's future! Dear God! Rules of a school-board! Sam!

Won't you stand by Fern, and threaten to resign from the board if they

try to discharge her?"
Rather testy, tired of so many subtleties, he complained, "Well, I'll do

what I can, but I'll have to wait till the board meets."

And "I'll do what I can," together with the secret admission "Of

course you and I know what Ma Bogart is," was all Carol could get

from Superintendent George Edwin Mott, Ezra Stowbody, the Reverend Mr.

Zitterel or any other member of the school-board.

Afterward she wondered whether Mr. Zitterel could have been referring

to herself when he observed, "There's too much license in high places

in this town, though, and the wages of sin is death--or anyway, bein'

fired." The holy leer with which the priest said it remained in her

She was at the hotel before eight next morning. Fern longed to go to

school, to face the tittering, but she was too shaky. Carol read to

her all day and, by reassuring her, convinced her own self that the

school-board would be just. She was less sure of it that evening when,

at the motion pictures, she heard Mrs. Gougerling exclaim to Mrs.

Howland, "She may be so innocent and all, and I suppose she probably is,

but still, if she drank a whole bottle of whisky at that dance, the way

everybody says she did, she may have forgotten she was so innocent! Hee,

hee, hee!" Maud Dyer, leaning back from her seat, put in, "That's what

I've said all along. I don't want to roast anybody, but have you noticed

the way she looks at men?"
"When will they have me on the scaffold?" Carol speculated.
Nat Hicks stopped the Kennicotts on their way home. Carol hated him for

his manner of assuming that they two had a mysterious understanding.

Without quite winking he seemed to wink at her as he gurgled, "What do

you folks think about this Mullins woman? I'm not strait-laced, but I

tell you we got to have decent women in our schools. D' you know what I

heard? They say whatever she may of done afterwards, this Mullins dame

took two quarts of whisky to the dance with her, and got stewed before

Cy did! Some tank, that wren! Ha, ha, ha!"

"Rats, I don't believe it," Kennicott muttered.
He got Carol away before she was able to speak.
She saw Erik passing the house, late, alone, and she stared after him,

longing for the lively bitterness of the things he would say about the

town. Kennicott had nothing for her but "Oh, course, ev'body likes a

juicy story, but they don't intend to be mean."

She went up to bed proving to herself that the members of the

school-board were superior men.

It was Tuesday afternoon before she learned that the board had met

at ten in the morning and voted to "accept Miss Fern Mullins's

resignation." Sam Clark telephoned the news to her. "We're not making

any charges. We're just letting her resign. Would you like to drop over

to the hotel and ask her to write the resignation, now we've accepted

it? Glad I could get the board to put it that way. It's thanks to you."

"But can't you see that the town will take this as proof of the


"We're--not--making--no--charges--whatever!" Sam was obviously finding

it hard to be patient.

Fern left town that evening.
Carol went with her to the train. The two girls elbowed through a silent

lip-licking crowd. Carol tried to stare them down but in face of

the impishness of the boys and the bovine gaping of the men, she was

embarrassed. Fern did not glance at them. Carol felt her arm tremble,

though she was tearless, listless, plodding. She squeezed Carol's hand,

said something unintelligible, stumbled up into the vestibule.

Carol remembered that Miles Bjornstam had also taken a train. What would

be the scene at the station when she herself took departure?

She walked up-town behind two strangers.
One of them was giggling, "See that good-looking wench that got on here?

The swell kid with the small black hat? She's some charmer! I was here

yesterday, before my jump to Ojibway Falls, and I heard all about

her. Seems she was a teacher, but she certainly was a high-roller--O

boy!--high, wide, and fancy! Her and couple of other skirts bought a

whole case of whisky and went on a tear, and one night, darned if this

bunch of cradle-robbers didn't get hold of some young kids, just small

boys, and they all got lit up like a White Way, and went out to a

roughneck dance, and they say----"
The narrator turned, saw a woman near and, not being a common person nor

a coarse workman but a clever salesman and a householder, lowered

his voice for the rest of the tale. During it the other man laughed


Carol turned off on a side-street.
She passed Cy Bogart. He was humorously narrating some achievement to a

group which included Nat Hicks, Del Snafflin, Bert Tybee the bartender,

and A. Tennyson O'Hearn the shyster lawyer. They were men far older than

Cy but they accepted him as one of their own, and encouraged him to go

It was a week before she received from Fern a letter of which this was a

. . . & of course my family did not really believe the story but as

they were sure I must have done something wrong they just lectured

me generally, in fact jawed me till I have gone to live at a boarding

house. The teachers' agencies must know the story, man at one almost

slammed the door in my face when I went to ask about a job, & at another

the woman in charge was beastly. Don't know what I will do. Don't seem

to feel very well. May marry a fellow that's in love with me but he's so

stupid that he makes me SCREAM.
Dear Mrs. Kennicott you were the only one that believed me. I guess it's

a joke on me, I was such a simp, I felt quite heroic while I was driving

the buggy back that night & keeping Cy away from me. I guess I expected

the people in Gopher Prairie to admire me. I did use to be admired for

my athletics at the U.--just five months ago.


FOR a month which was one suspended moment of doubt she saw Erik only

casually, at an Eastern Star dance, at the shop, where, in the

presence of Nat Hicks, they conferred with immense particularity on the

significance of having one or two buttons on the cuff of Kennicott's New

Suit. For the benefit of beholders they were respectably vacuous.
Thus barred from him, depressed in the thought of Fern, Carol was

suddenly and for the first time convinced that she loved Erik.

She told herself a thousand inspiriting things which he would say if he

had the opportunity; for them she admired him, loved him. But she was

afraid to summon him. He understood, he did not come. She forgot her

every doubt of him, and her discomfort in his background. Each day it

seemed impossible to get through the desolation of not seeing him. Each

morning, each afternoon, each evening was a compartment divided from all

other units of time, distinguished by a sudden "Oh! I want to see Erik!"

which was as devastating as though she had never said it before.

There were wretched periods when she could not picture him. Usually

he stood out in her mind in some little moment--glancing up from his

preposterous pressing-iron, or running on the beach with Dave Dyer.

But sometimes he had vanished; he was only an opinion. She worried then

about his appearance: Weren't his wrists too large and red? Wasn't his

nose a snub, like so many Scandinavians? Was he at all the graceful

thing she had fancied? When she encountered him on the street she was

as much reassuring herself as rejoicing in his presence. More disturbing

than being unable to visualize him was the darting remembrance of some

intimate aspect: his face as they had walked to the boat together at the

picnic; the ruddy light on his temples, neck-cords, flat cheeks.
On a November evening when Kennicott was in the country she answered the

bell and was confused to find Erik at the door, stooped, imploring, his

hands in the pockets of his topcoat. As though he had been rehearsing

his speech he instantly besought:

"Saw your husband driving away. I've got to see you. I can't stand it.

Come for a walk. I know! People might see us. But they won't if we hike

into the country. I'll wait for you by the elevator. Take as long as you

want to--oh, come quick!"

"In a few minutes," she promised.
She murmured, "I'll just talk to him for a quarter of an hour and come

home." She put an her tweed coat and rubber overshoes, considering how

honest and hopeless are rubbers, how clearly their chaperonage proved

that she wasn't going to a lovers' tryst.

She found him in the shadow of the grain-elevator, sulkily kicking at

a rail of the side-track. As she came toward him she fancied that his

whole body expanded. But he said nothing, nor she; he patted her sleeve,

she returned the pat, and they crossed the railroad tracks, found a

road, clumped toward open country.
"Chilly night, but I like this melancholy gray," he said.
They passed a moaning clump of trees and splashed along the wet road.

He tucked her hand into the side-pocket of his overcoat. She caught his

thumb and, sighing, held it exactly as Hugh held hers when they went

walking. She thought about Hugh. The current maid was in for the

evening, but was it safe to leave the baby with her? The thought was

distant and elusive.

Erik began to talk, slowly, revealingly. He made for her a picture of

his work in a large tailor shop in Minneapolis: the steam and heat, and

the drudgery; the men in darned vests and crumpled trousers, men who

"rushed growlers of beer" and were cynical about women, who laughed at

him and played jokes on him. "But I didn't mind, because I could keep

away from them outside. I used to go to the Art Institute and the Walker

Gallery, and tramp clear around Lake Harriet, or hike out to the Gates

house and imagine it was a chateau in Italy and I lived in it. I was a

marquis and collected tapestries--that was after I was wounded in Padua.

The only really bad time was when a tailor named Finkelfarb found a

diary I was trying to keep and he read it aloud in the shop--it was a

bad fight." He laughed. "I got fined five dollars. But that's all gone

now. Seems as though you stand between me and the gas stoves--the long

flames with mauve edges, licking up around the irons and making that

sneering sound all day--aaaaah!"
Her fingers tightened about his thumb as she perceived the hot low room,

the pounding of pressing-irons, the reek of scorched cloth, and Erik

among giggling gnomes. His fingertip crept through the opening of her

glove and smoothed her palm. She snatched her hand away, stripped off

her glove, tucked her hand back into his.
He was saying something about a "wonderful person." In her tranquillity

she let the words blow by and heeded only the beating wings of his

She was conscious that he was fumbling for impressive speech.
"Say, uh--Carol, I've written a poem about you."
"That's nice. Let's hear it."
"Damn it, don't be so casual about it! Can't you take me seriously?"
"My dear boy, if I took you seriously----! I don't want us to be hurt

more than--more than we will be. Tell me the poem. I've never had a poem

written about me!"
"It isn't really a poem. It's just some words that I love because it

seems to me they catch what you are. Of course probably they won't seem

so to anybody else, but----Well----
Little and tender and merry and wise

With eyes that meet my eyes.

Do you get the idea the way I do?"
"Yes! I'm terribly grateful!" And she was grateful--while she

impersonally noted how bad a verse it was.

She was aware of the haggard beauty in the lowering night. Monstrous

tattered clouds sprawled round a forlorn moon; puddles and rocks

glistened with inner light. They were passing a grove of scrub poplars,

feeble by day but looming now like a menacing wall. She stopped. They

heard the branches dripping, the wet leaves sullenly plumping on the

soggy earth.

"Waiting--waiting--everything is waiting," she whispered. She drew her

hand from his, pressed her clenched fingers against her lips. She was

lost in the somberness. "I am happy--so we must go home, before we have

time to become unhappy. But can't we sit on a log for a minute and just

"No. Too wet. But I wish we could build a fire, and you could sit on

my overcoat beside it. I'm a grand fire-builder! My cousin Lars and me

spent a week one time in a cabin way up in the Big Woods, snowed in.

The fireplace was filled with a dome of ice when we got there, but we

chopped it out, and jammed the thing full of pine-boughs. Couldn't we

build a fire back here in the woods and sit by it for a while?"

She pondered, half-way between yielding and refusal. Her head ached

faintly. She was in abeyance. Everything, the night, his silhouette, the

cautious-treading future, was as undistinguishable as though she were

drifting bodiless in a Fourth Dimension. While her mind groped, the

lights of a motor car swooped round a bend in the road, and they stood

farther apart. "What ought I to do?" she mused. "I think----Oh, I won't

be robbed! I AM good! If I'm so enslaved that I can't sit by the fire

with a man and talk, then I'd better be dead!"

The lights of the thrumming car grew magically; were upon them; abruptly

stopped. From behind the dimness of the windshield a voice, annoyed,

sharp: "Hello there!"
She realized that it was Kennicott.
The irritation in his voice smoothed out. "Having a walk?"
They made schoolboyish sounds of assent.
"Pretty wet, isn't it? Better ride back. Jump up in front here,


His manner of swinging open the door was a command. Carol was conscious

that Erik was climbing in, that she was apparently to sit in the back,

and that she had been left to open the rear door for herself. Instantly

the wonder which had flamed to the gusty skies was quenched, and she was

Mrs. W. P. Kennicott of Gopher Prairie, riding in a squeaking old car,

and likely to be lectured by her husband.

She feared what Kennicott would say to Erik. She bent toward them.

Kennicott was observing, "Going to have some rain before the night 's

over, all right."
"Yes," said Erik.
"Been funny season this year, anyway. Never saw it with such a cold

October and such a nice November. 'Member we had a snow way back on

October ninth! But it certainly was nice up to the twenty-first, this

month--as I remember it, not a flake of snow in November so far, has

there been? But I shouldn't wonder if we'd be having some snow 'most any

time now."

"Yes, good chance of it," said Erik.
"Wish I'd had more time to go after the ducks this fall. By golly, what

do you think?" Kennicott sounded appealing. "Fellow wrote me from Man

Trap Lake that he shot seven mallards and couple of canvas-back in one

"That must have been fine," said Erik.

Carol was ignored. But Kennicott was blustrously cheerful. He shouted

to a farmer, as he slowed up to pass the frightened team, "There we

are--schon gut!" She sat back, neglected, frozen, unheroic heroine in

a drama insanely undramatic. She made a decision resolute and enduring.

She would tell Kennicott----What would she tell him? She could not say

that she loved Erik. DID she love him? But she would have it out.

She was not sure whether it was pity for Kennicott's blindness, or

irritation at his assumption that he was enough to fill any woman's

life, which prompted her, but she knew that she was out of the trap,

that she could be frank; and she was exhilarated with the adventure of

it . . . while in front he was entertaining Erik:
"Nothing like an hour on a duck-pass to make you relish your victuals

and----Gosh, this machine hasn't got the power of a fountain pen. Guess

the cylinders are jam-cram-full of carbon again. Don't know but what

maybe I'll have to put in another set of piston-rings."

He stopped on Main Street and clucked hospitably, "There, that'll give

you just a block to walk. G' night."

Carol was in suspense. Would Erik sneak away?
He stolidly moved to the back of the car, thrust in his hand, muttered,

"Good night--Carol. I'm glad we had our walk." She pressed his hand. The

car was flapping on. He was hidden from her--by a corner drug store on

Main Street!

Kennicott did not recognize her till he drew up before the house. Then

he condescended, "Better jump out here and I'll take the boat around

back. Say, see if the back door is unlocked, will you?" She unlatched

the door for him. She realized that she still carried the damp glove she

had stripped off for Erik. She drew it on. She stood in the center of

the living-room, unmoving, in damp coat and muddy rubbers. Kennicott was

as opaque as ever. Her task wouldn't be anything so lively as having

to endure a scolding, but only an exasperating effort to command his

attention so that he would understand the nebulous things she had to

tell him, instead of interrupting her by yawning, winding the clock, and

going up to bed. She heard him shoveling coal into the furnace. He came

through the kitchen energetically, but before he spoke to her he did

stop in the hall, did wind the clock.
He sauntered into the living-room and his glance passed from her

drenched hat to her smeared rubbers. She could hear--she could hear,

see, taste, smell, touch--his "Better take your coat off, Carrie; looks

kind of wet." Yes, there it was:

"Well, Carrie, you better----" He chucked his own coat on a chair,

stalked to her, went on with a rising tingling voice, "----you better

cut it out now. I'm not going to do the out-raged husband stunt. I like

you and I respect you, and I'd probably look like a boob if I tried to

be dramatic. But I think it's about time for you and Valborg to call a

halt before you get in Dutch, like Fern Mullins did."

"Do you----"
"Course. I know all about it. What d' you expect in a town that's as

filled with busybodies, that have plenty of time to stick their noses

into other folks' business, as this is? Not that they've had the nerve

to do much tattling to me, but they've hinted around a lot, and anyway,

I could see for myself that you liked him. But of course I knew how cold

you were, I knew you wouldn't stand it even if Valborg did try to hold

your hand or kiss you, so I didn't worry. But same time, I hope you

don't suppose this husky young Swede farmer is as innocent and Platonic

and all that stuff as you are! Wait now, don't get sore! I'm not

knocking him. He isn't a bad sort. And he's young and likes to gas about

books. Course you like him. That isn't the real rub. But haven't you

just seen what this town can do, once it goes and gets moral on you,

like it did with Fern? You probably think that two young folks making

love are alone if anybody ever is, but there's nothing in this town

that you don't do in company with a whole lot of uninvited but awful

interested guests. Don't you realize that if Ma Westlake and a few

others got started they'd drive you up a tree, and you'd find yourself

so well advertised as being in love with this Valborg fellow that you'd

HAVE to be, just to spite 'em!"
"Let me sit down," was all Carol could say. She drooped on the couch,

wearily, without elasticity.

He yawned, "Gimme your coat and rubbers," and while she stripped them

off he twiddled his watch-chain, felt the radiator, peered at the

thermometer. He shook out her wraps in the hall, hung them up with

exactly his usual care. He pushed a chair near to her and sat bolt up.

He looked like a physician about to give sound and undesired advice.
Before he could launch into his heavy discourse she desperately got in,

"Please! I want you to know that I was going to tell you everything,

"Well, I don't suppose there's really much to tell."
"But there is. I'm fond of Erik. He appeals to something in here." She

touched her breast. "And I admire him. He isn't just a 'young Swede

farmer.' He's an artist----"
"Wait now! He's had a chance all evening to tell you what a whale of

a fine fellow he is. Now it's my turn. I can't talk artistic,

but----Carrie, do you understand my work?" He leaned forward, thick

capable hands on thick sturdy thighs, mature and slow, yet beseeching.

"No matter even if you are cold, I like you better than anybody in

the world. One time I said that you were my soul. And that still goes.

You're all the things that I see in a sunset when I'm driving in from

the country, the things that I like but can't make poetry of. Do you

realize what my job is? I go round twenty-four hours a day, in mud and

blizzard, trying my damnedest to heal everybody, rich or poor. You--that

're always spieling about how scientists ought to rule the world,

instead of a bunch of spread-eagle politicians--can't you see that I'm

all the science there is here? And I can stand the cold and the bumpy

roads and the lonely rides at night. All I need is to have you here at

home to welcome me. I don't expect you to be passionate--not any more

I don't--but I do expect you to appreciate my work. I bring babies into

the world, and save lives, and make cranky husbands quit being mean to

their wives. And then you go and moon over a Swede tailor because he can

talk about how to put ruchings on a skirt! Hell of a thing for a man to

fuss over!"

She flew out at him: "You make your side clear. Let me give mine. I

admit all you say--except about Erik. But is it only you, and the baby,

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