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.
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."
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?
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."
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!"
"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 mind.
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 charges?"
"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 hoarsely.
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 on.
It was a week before she received from Fern a letter of which this was a part:
. . . & 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.