THEY were driving down the lake to the cottages that moonlit January night, twenty of them in the bob-sled. They sang "Toy Land" and "Seeing Nelly Home"; they leaped from the low back of the sled to race over the slippery snow ruts; and when they were tired they climbed on the runners for a lift. The moon-tipped flakes kicked up by the horses settled over the revelers and dripped down their necks, but they laughed, yelped, beat their leather mittens against their chests. The harness rattled, the sleigh-bells were frantic, Jack Elder's setter sprang beside the horses, barking.
For a time Carol raced with them. The cold air gave fictive power. She felt that she could run on all night, leap twenty feet at a stride. But the excess of energy tired her, and she was glad to snuggle under the comforters which covered the hay in the sled-box.
In the midst of the babel she found enchanted quietude.
Along the road the shadows from oak-branches were inked on the snow like bars of music. Then the sled came out on the surface of Lake Minniemashie. Across the thick ice was a veritable road, a short-cut for farmers. On the glaring expanse of the lake-levels of hard crust, flashes of green ice blown clear, chains of drifts ribbed like the sea-beach — the moonlight was overwhelming. It stormed on the snow, it turned the woods ashore into crystals of fire. The night was tropical and voluptuous. In that drugged magic there was no difference between heavy heat and insinuating cold.
Carol was dream-strayed. The turbulent voices, even Guy Pollock being connotative beside her, were nothing. She repeated:
Deep on the convent-roof the snows
Are sparkling to the moon.
The words and the light blurred into one vast indefinite happiness, and she believed that some great thing was coming to her. She withdrew from the clamor into a worship of incomprehensible gods. The night expanded, she was conscious of the universe, and all mysteries stooped down to her.
She was jarred out of her ecstasy as the bob-sled bumped up the steep road to the bluff where stood the cottages.
They dismounted at Jack Elder's shack. The interior walls of unpainted boards, which had been grateful in August, were forbidding in the chill. In fur coats and mufflers tied over caps they were a strange company, bears and walruses talking. Jack Elder lighted the shavings waiting in the belly of a cast-iron stove which was like an enlarged bean-pot. They piled their wraps high on a rocker, and cheered the rocker as it solemnly tipped over backward.
Mrs. Elder and Mrs. Sam Clark made coffee in an enormous blackened tin pot; Vida Sherwin and Mrs. McGanum unpacked doughnuts and gingerbread; Mrs. Dave Dyer warmed up "hot dogs" — frankfurters in rolls; Dr. Terry Gould, after announcing, "Ladies and gents, prepare to be shocked; shock line forms on the right," produced a bottle of bourbon whisky.
The others danced, muttering "Ouch!" as their frosted feet struck the pine planks. Carol had lost her dream. Harry Haydock lifted her by the waist and swung her. She laughed. The gravity of the people who stood apart and talked made her the more impatient for frolic.
Kennicott, Sam Clark, Jackson Elder, young Dr. McGanum, and James Madison Howland, teetering on their toes near the stove, conversed with the sedate pomposity of the commercialist. In details the men were unlike, yet they said the same things in the same hearty monotonous voices. You had to look at them to see which was speaking.
"Well, we made pretty good time coming up," from one — any one.
"Yump, we hit it up after we struck the good going on the lake."
"Seems kind of slow though, after driving an auto."
"Yump, it does, at that. Say, how'd you make out with that Sphinx tire you got?"
"Seems to hold out fine. Still, I don't know's I like it any better than the Roadeater Cord."
"Yump, nothing better than a Roadeater. Especially the cord. The cord's lots better than the fabric."
"Yump, you said something — — Roadeater's a good tire."
"Say, how'd you come out with Pete Garsheim on his payments?"
"He's paying up pretty good. That's a nice piece of land he's got."
"Yump, that's a dandy farm."
"Yump, Pete's got a good place there."
They glided from these serious topics into the jocose insults which are the wit of Main Street. Sam Clark was particularly apt at them. "What's this wild-eyed sale of summer caps you think you're trying to pull off?" he clamored at Harry Haydock. "Did you steal 'em, or are you just overcharging us, as usual? . . . Oh say, speaking about caps, d'I ever tell you the good one I've got on Will? The doc thinks he's a pretty good driver, fact, he thinks he's almost got human intelligence, but one time he had his machine out in the rain, and the poor fish, he hadn't put on chains, and thinks I — — "
Carol had heard the story rather often. She fled back to the dancers, and at Dave Dyer's masterstroke of dropping an icicle down Mrs. McGanum's back she applauded hysterically.
They sat on the floor, devouring the food. The men giggled amiably as they passed the whisky bottle, and laughed, "There's a real sport!" when Juanita Haydock took a sip. Carol tried to follow; she believed that she desired to be drunk and riotous; but the whisky choked her and as she saw Kennicott frown she handed the bottle on repentantly. Somewhat too late she remembered that she had given up domesticity and repentance.
"Let's play charades!" said Raymie Wutherspoon.
"Oh yes, do let us," said Ella Stowbody.
"That's the caper," sanctioned Harry Haydock.
They interpreted the word "making" as May and King. The crown was a red flannel mitten cocked on Sam Clark's broad pink bald head. They forgot they were respectable. They made-believe. Carol was stimulated to cry:
"Let's form a dramatic club and give a play! Shall we? It's been so much fun tonight!"
They looked affable.
"Sure," observed Sam Clark loyally.
"Oh, do let us! I think it would be lovely to present 'Romeo and Juliet'!" yearned Ella Stowbody.
"Be a whale of a lot of fun," Dr. Terry Gould granted.
"But if we did," Carol cautioned, "it would be awfully silly to have amateur theatricals. We ought to paint our own scenery and everything, and really do something fine. There'd be a lot of hard work. Would you — would we all be punctual at rehearsals, do you suppose?"
"You bet!" "Sure." "That's the idea." "Fellow ought to be prompt at rehearsals," they all agreed.
"Then let's meet next week and form the Gopher Prairie Dramatic Association!" Carol sang.
She drove home loving these friends who raced through moonlit snow, had Bohemian parties, and were about to create beauty in the theater. Everything was solved. She would be an authentic part of the town, yet escape the coma of the Village Virus. . . . She would be free of Kennicott again, without hurting him, without his knowing.
She had triumphed.
The moon was small and high now, and unheeding.
Though they had all been certain that they longed for the privilege of attending committee meetings and rehearsals, the dramatic association as definitely formed consisted only of Kennicott, Carol, Guy Pollock, Vida Sherwin, Ella Stowbody, the Harry Haydocks, the Dave Dyers, Raymie Wutherspoon, Dr. Terry Gould, and four new candidates: flirtatious Rita Simons, Dr. and Mrs. Harvey Dillon and Myrtle Cass, an uncomely but intense girl of nineteen. Of these fifteen only seven came to the first meeting. The rest telephoned their unparalleled regrets and engagements and illnesses, and announced that they would be present at all other meetings through eternity.