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 voice.
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 listen?"
"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, Valborg."
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.