IT WAS at a supper of the Jolly Seventeen in August that Carol heard of "Elizabeth," from Mrs. Dave Dyer.
Carol was fond of Maud Dyer, because she had been particularly agreeable lately; had obviously repented of the nervous distaste which she had once shown. Maud patted her hand when they met, and asked about Hugh.
Kennicott said that he was "kind of sorry for the girl, some ways; she's too darn emotional, but still, Dave is sort of mean to her." He was polite to poor Maud when they all went down to the cottages for a swim. Carol was proud of that sympathy in him, and now she took pains to sit with their new friend.
Mrs. Dyer was bubbling, "Oh, have you folks heard about this young fellow that's just come to town that the boys call 'Elizabeth'? He's working in Nat Hicks's tailor shop. I bet he doesn't make eighteen a week, but my! isn't he the perfect lady though! He talks so refined, and oh, the lugs he puts on — belted coat, and pique collar with a gold pin, and socks to match his necktie, and honest — you won't believe this, but I got it straight — this fellow, you know he's staying at Mrs. Gurrey's punk old boarding-house, and they say he asked Mrs. Gurrey if he ought to put on a dress-suit for supper! Imagine! Can you beat that? And him nothing but a Swede tailor — Erik Valborg his name is. But he used to be in a tailor shop in Minneapolis (they do say he's a smart needle-pusher, at that) and he tries to let on that he's a regular city fellow. They say he tries to make people think he's a poet — carries books around and pretends to read 'em. Myrtle Cass says she met him at a dance, and he was mooning around all over the place, and he asked her did she like flowers and poetry and music and everything; he spieled like he was a regular United States Senator; and Myrtle — she's a devil, that girl, ha! ha! — she kidded him along, and got him going, and honest, what d'you think he said? He said he didn't find any intellectual companionship in this town. Can you BEAT it? Imagine! And him a Swede tailor! My! And they say he's the most awful mollycoddle — looks just like a girl. The boys call him 'Elizabeth,' and they stop him and ask about the books he lets on to have read, and he goes and tells them, and they take it all in and jolly him terribly, and he never gets onto the fact they're kidding him. Oh, I think it's just TOO funny!"
The Jolly Seventeen laughed, and Carol laughed with them. Mrs. Jack Elder added that this Erik Valborg had confided to Mrs. Gurrey that he would "love to design clothes for women." Imagine! Mrs. Harvey Dillon had had a glimpse of him, but honestly, she'd thought he was awfully handsome. This was instantly controverted by Mrs. B. J. Gougerling, wife of the banker. Mrs. Gougerling had had, she reported, a good look at this Valborg fellow. She and B. J. had been motoring, and passed "Elizabeth" out by McGruder's Bridge. He was wearing the awfullest clothes, with the waist pinched in like a girl's. He was sitting on a rock doing nothing, but when he heard the Gougerling car coming he snatched a book out of his pocket, and as they went by he pretended to be reading it, to show off. And he wasn't really good-looking — just kind of soft, as B. J. had pointed out.
When the husbands came they joined in the expose. "My name is Elizabeth. I'm the celebrated musical tailor. The skirts fall for me by the thou. Do I get some more veal loaf?" merrily shrieked Dave Dyer. He had some admirable stories about the tricks the town youngsters had played on Valborg. They had dropped a decaying perch into his pocket. They had pinned on his back a sign, "I'm the prize boob, kick me."
Glad of any laughter, Carol joined the frolic, and surprised them by crying, "Dave, I do think you're the dearest thing since you got your hair cut!" That was an excellent sally. Everybody applauded. Kennicott looked proud.
She decided that sometime she really must go out of her way to pass Hicks's shop and see this freak.
She was at Sunday morning service at the Baptist Church, in a solemn row with her husband, Hugh, Uncle Whittier, Aunt Bessie.
Despite Aunt Bessie's nagging the Kennicotts rarely attended church. The doctor asserted, "Sure, religion is a fine influence — got to have it to keep the lower classes in order — fact, it's the only thing that appeals to a lot of those fellows and makes 'em respect the rights of property. And I guess this theology is O.K.; lot of wise old coots figured it all out, and they knew more about it than we do." He believed in the Christian religion, and never thought about it, he believed in the church, and seldom went near it; he was shocked by Carol's lack of faith, and wasn't quite sure what was the nature of the faith that she lacked.
Carol herself was an uneasy and dodging agnostic.
When she ventured to Sunday School and heard the teachers droning that the genealogy of Shamsherai was a valuable ethical problem for children to think about; when she experimented with Wednesday prayer-meeting and listened to store-keeping elders giving their unvarying weekly testimony in primitive erotic symbols and such gory Chaldean phrases as "washed in the blood of the lamb" and "a vengeful God"; when Mrs. Bogart boasted that through his boyhood she had made Cy confess nightly upon the basis of the Ten Commandments; then Carol was dismayed to find the Christian religion, in America, in the twentieth century, as abnormal as Zoroastrianism — without the splendor. But when she went to church suppers and felt the friendliness, saw the gaiety with which the sisters served cold ham and scalloped potatoes; when Mrs. Champ Perry cried to her, on an afternoon call, "My dear, if you just knew how happy it makes you to come into abiding grace," then Carol found the humanness behind the sanguinary and alien theology. Always she perceived that the churches — Methodist, Baptist, Congregational, Catholic, all of them — which had seemed so unimportant to the judge's home in her childhood, so isolated from the city struggle in St. Paul, were still, in Gopher Prairie, the strongest of the forces compelling respectability.
This August Sunday she had been tempted by the announcement that the Reverend Edmund Zitterel would preach on the topic "America, Face Your Problems!" With the great war, workmen in every nation showing a desire to control industries, Russia hinting a leftward revolution against Kerensky, woman suffrage coming, there seemed to be plenty of problems for the Reverend Mr. Zitterel to call on America to face. Carol gathered her family and trotted off behind Uncle Whittier.
The congregation faced the heat with informality. Men with highly plastered hair, so painfully shaved that their faces looked sore, removed their coats, sighed, and unbuttoned two buttons of their uncreased Sunday vests. Large-bosomed, white-bloused, hot-necked, spectacled matrons — the Mothers in Israel, pioneers and friends of Mrs. Champ Perry — waved their palm-leaf fans in a steady rhythm. Abashed boys slunk into the rear pews and giggled, while milky little girls, up front with their mothers, self-consciously kept from turning around.
The church was half barn and half Gopher Prairie parlor. The streaky brown wallpaper was broken in its dismal sweep only by framed texts, "Come unto Me" and "The Lord is My Shepherd," by a list of hymns, and by a crimson and green diagram, staggeringly drawn upon hemp-colored paper, indicating the alarming ease with which a young man may descend from Palaces of Pleasure and the House of Pride to Eternal Damnation. But the varnished oak pews and the new red carpet and the three large chairs on the platform, behind the bare reading-stand, were all of a rocking-chair comfort.
Carol was civic and neighborly and commendable today. She beamed and bowed. She trolled out with the others the hymn:
How pleasant 'tis on Sabbath morn
To gather in the church
And there I'll have no carnal thoughts,
Nor sin shall me besmirch.
With a rustle of starched linen skirts and stiff shirt-fronts, the congregation sat down, and gave heed to the Reverend Mr. Zitterel. The priest was a thin, swart, intense young man with a bang. He wore a black sack suit and a lilac tie. He smote the enormous Bible on the reading-stand, vociferated, "Come, let us reason together," delivered a prayer informing Almighty God of the news of the past week, and began to reason.
It proved that the only problems which America had to face were Mormonism and Prohibition: