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.
"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!"
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."
"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."
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.
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.
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."
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 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.