Main Street By Sinclair Lewis Chapters 5-7

Chapter V

I

"WE'LL steal the whole day, and go hunting. I want you to see the country round here," Kennicott announced at breakfast. "I'd take the car — want you to see how swell she runs since I put in a new piston. But we'll take a team, so we can get right out into the fields. Not many prairie chickens left now, but we might just happen to run onto a small covey."

He fussed over his hunting-kit. He pulled his hip boots out to full length and examined them for holes. He feverishly counted his shotgun shells, lecturing her on the qualities of smokeless powder. He drew the new hammerless shotgun out of its heavy tan leather case and made her peep through the barrels to see how dazzlingly free they were from rust.

The world of hunting and camping-outfits and fishing-tackle was unfamiliar to her, and in Kennicott's interest she found something creative and joyous. She examined the smooth stock, the carved hard rubber butt of the gun. The shells, with their brass caps and sleek green bodies and hieroglyphics on the wads, were cool and comfortably heavy in her hands.

Kennicott wore a brown canvas hunting-coat with vast pockets lining the inside, corduroy trousers which bulged at the wrinkles, peeled and scarred shoes, a scarecrow felt hat. In this uniform he felt virile. They clumped out to the livery buggy, they packed the kit and the box of lunch into the back, crying to each other that it was a magnificent day.

Kennicott had borrowed Jackson Elder's red and white English setter, a complacent dog with a waving tail of silver hair which flickered in the sunshine. As they started, the dog yelped, and leaped at the horses' heads, till Kennicott took him into the buggy, where he nuzzled Carol's knees and leaned out to sneer at farm mongrels.

The grays clattered out on the hard dirt road with a pleasant song of hoofs: "Ta ta ta rat! Ta ta ta rat!" It was early and fresh, the air whistling, frost bright on the golden rod. As the sun warmed the world of stubble into a welter of yellow they turned from the highroad, through the bars of a farmer's gate, into a field, slowly bumping over the uneven earth. In a hollow of the rolling prairie they lost sight even of the country road. It was warm and placid. Locusts trilled among the dry wheat-stalks, and brilliant little flies hurtled across the buggy. A buzz of content filled the air. Crows loitered and gossiped in the sky.

The dog had been let out and after a dance of excitement he settled down to a steady quartering of the field, forth and back, forth and back, his nose down.

"Pete Rustad owns this farm, and he told me he saw a small covey of chickens in the west forty, last week. Maybe we'll get some sport after all," Kennicott chuckled blissfully.

She watched the dog in suspense, breathing quickly every time he seemed to halt. She had no desire to slaughter birds, but she did desire to belong to Kennicott's world.

The dog stopped, on the point, a forepaw held up.

"By golly! He's hit a scent! Come on!" squealed Kennicott. He leaped from the buggy, twisted the reins about the whip-socket, swung her out, caught up his gun, slipped in two shells, stalked toward the rigid dog, Carol pattering after him. The setter crawled ahead, his tail quivering, his belly close to the stubble. Carol was nervous. She expected clouds of large birds to fly up instantly. Her eyes were strained with staring. But they followed the dog for a quarter of a mile, turning, doubling, crossing two low hills, kicking through a swale of weeds, crawling between the strands of a barbed-wire fence. The walking was hard on her pavement-trained feet. The earth was lumpy, the stubble prickly and lined with grass, thistles, abortive stumps of clover. She dragged and floundered.

She heard Kennicott gasp, "Look!" Three gray birds were starting up from the stubble. They were round, dumpy, like enormous bumble bees. Kennicott was sighting, moving the barrel. She was agitated. Why didn't he fire? The birds would be gone! Then a crash, another, and two birds turned somersaults in the air, plumped down.

When he showed her the birds she had no sensation of blood. These heaps of feathers were so soft and unbruised — there was about them no hint of death. She watched her conquering man tuck them into his inside pocket, and trudged with him back to the buggy.

They found no more prairie chickens that morning.

At noon they drove into her first farmyard, a private village, a white house with no porches save a low and quite dirty stoop at the back, a crimson barn with white trimmings, a glazed brick silo, an ex-carriage-shed, now the garage of a Ford, an unpainted cow-stable, a chicken-house, a pig-pen, a corn-crib, a granary, the galvanized-iron skeleton tower of a wind-mill. The dooryard was of packed yellow clay, treeless, barren of grass, littered with rusty plowshares and wheels of discarded cultivators. Hardened trampled mud, like lava, filled the pig-pen. The doors of the house were grime-rubbed, the corners and eaves were rusted with rain, and the child who stared at them from the kitchen window was smeary-faced. But beyond the barn was a clump of scarlet geraniums; the prairie breeze was sunshine in motion; the flashing metal blades of the windmill revolved with a lively hum; a horse neighed, a rooster crowed, martins flew in and out of the cow-stable.

A small spare woman with flaxen hair trotted from the house. She was twanging a Swedish patois — not in monotone, like English, but singing it, with a lyrical whine:

"Pete he say you kom pretty soon hunting, doctor. My, dot's fine you kom. Is dis de bride? Ohhhh! Ve yoost say las' night, ve hope maybe ve see her som day. My, soch a pretty lady!" Mrs. Rustad was shining with welcome. "Vell, vell! Ay hope you lak dis country! Von't you stay for dinner, doctor?"

"No, but I wonder if you wouldn't like to give us a glass of milk?" condescended Kennicott.

"Vell Ay should say Ay vill! You vait har a second and Ay run on de milk-house!" She nervously hastened to a tiny red building beside the windmill; she came back with a pitcher of milk from which Carol filled the thermos bottle.

As they drove off Carol admired, "She's the dearest thing I ever saw. And she adores you. You are the Lord of the Manor."

"Oh no," much pleased, "but still they do ask my advice about things. Bully people, these Scandinavian farmers. And prosperous, too. Helga Rustad, she's still scared of America, but her kids will be doctors and lawyers and governors of the state and any darn thing they want to."

"I wonder — — " Carol was plunged back into last night's Weltschmerz. "I wonder if these farmers aren't bigger than we are? So simple and hard-working. The town lives on them. We townies are parasites, and yet we feel superior to them. Last night I heard Mr. Haydock talking about 'hicks.' Apparently he despises the farmers because they haven't reached the social heights of selling thread and buttons."

"Parasites? Us? Where'd the farmers be without the town? Who lends them money? Who — why, we supply them with everything!"

"Don't you find that some of the farmers think they pay too much for the services of the towns?"

"Oh, of course there's a lot of cranks among the farmers same as there are among any class. Listen to some of these kickers, a fellow'd think that the farmers ought to run the state and the whole shooting-match — probably if they had their way they'd fill up the legislature with a lot of farmers in manure-covered boots — yes, and they'd come tell me I was hired on a salary now, and couldn't fix my fees! That'd be fine for you, wouldn't it!"

"But why shouldn't they?"

"Why? That bunch of — — Telling ME — — Oh, for heaven's sake, let's quit arguing. All this discussing may be all right at a party but — — Let's forget it while we're hunting."

"I know. The Wonderlust — probably it's a worse affliction than the Wanderlust. I just wonder — — "

She told herself that she had everything in the world. And after each self-rebuke she stumbled again on "I just wonder — — "

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