Miss Ella Stowbody obliged with a recital of "The Recessional" and extracts from "Lalla Rookh." By request, she gave "An Old Sweetheart of Mine" as encore.
Gopher Prairie had finished the poets. It was ready for the next week's labor: English Fiction and Essays.
Mrs. Dawson besought, "Now we will have a discussion of the papers, and I am sure we shall all enjoy hearing from one who we hope to have as a new member, Mrs. Kennicott, who with her splendid literary training and all should be able to give us many pointers and — many helpful pointers."
Carol had warned herself not to be so "beastly supercilious." She had insisted that in the belated quest of these work-stained women was an aspiration which ought to stir her tears. "But they're so self-satisfied. They think they're doing Burns a favor. They don't believe they have a 'belated quest.' They're sure that they have culture salted and hung up." It was out of this stupor of doubt that Mrs. Dawson's summons roused her. She was in a panic. How could she speak without hurting them?
Mrs. Champ Perry leaned over to stroke her hand and whisper, "You look tired, dearie. Don't you talk unless you want to."
Affection flooded Carol; she was on her feet, searching for words and courtesies:
"The only thing in the way of suggestion — — I know you are following a definite program, but I do wish that now you've had such a splendid introduction, instead of going on with some other subject next year you could return and take up the poets more in detail. Especially actual quotations — even though their lives are so interesting and, as Mrs. Warren said, so morally instructive. And perhaps there are several poets not mentioned today whom it might be worth while considering — Keats, for instance, and Matthew Arnold and Rossetti and Swinburne. Swinburne would be such a — well, that is, such a contrast to life as we all enjoy it in our beautiful Middle-west — — "
She saw that Mrs. Leonard Warren was not with her. She captured her by innocently continuing:
"Unless perhaps Swinburne tends to be, uh, more outspoken than you, than we really like. What do you think, Mrs. Warren?"
The pastor's wife decided, "Why, you've caught my very thoughts, Mrs. Kennicott. Of course I have never READ Swinburne, but years ago, when he was in vogue, I remember Mr. Warren saying that Swinburne (or was it Oscar Wilde? but anyway:) he said that though many so-called intellectual people posed and pretended to find beauty in Swinburne, there can never be genuine beauty without the message from the heart. But at the same time I do think you have an excellent idea, and though we have talked about Furnishings and China as the probable subject for next year, I believe that it would be nice if the program committee would try to work in another day entirely devoted to English poetry! In fact, Madame Chairman, I so move you."
When Mrs. Dawson's coffee and angel's-food had helped them to recover from the depression caused by thoughts of Shakespeare's death they all told Carol that it was a pleasure to have her with them. The membership committee retired to the sitting-room for three minutes and elected her a member.
And she stopped being patronizing.
She wanted to be one of them. They were so loyal and kind. It was they who would carry out her aspiration. Her campaign against village sloth was actually begun! On what specific reform should she first loose her army? During the gossip after the meeting Mrs. George Edwin Mott remarked that the city hall seemed inadequate for the splendid modern Gopher Prairie. Mrs. Nat Hicks timidly wished that the young people could have free dances there — the lodge dances were so exclusive. The city hall. That was it! Carol hurried home.
She had not realized that Gopher Prairie was a city. From Kennicott she discovered that it was legally organized with a mayor and city-council and wards. She was delighted by the simplicity of voting one's self a metropolis. Why not?
She was a proud and patriotic citizen, all evening.
She examined the city hall, next morning. She had remembered it only as a bleak inconspicuousness. She found it a liver-colored frame coop half a block from Main Street. The front was an unrelieved wall of clapboards and dirty windows. It had an unobstructed view of a vacant lot and Nat Hicks's tailor shop. It was larger than the carpenter shop beside it, but not so well built.
No one was about. She walked into the corridor. On one side was the municipal court, like a country school; on the other, the room of the volunteer fire company, with a Ford hose-cart and the ornamental helmets used in parades, at the end of the hall, a filthy two-cell jail, now empty but smelling of ammonia and ancient sweat. The whole second story was a large unfinished room littered with piles of folding chairs, a lime-crusted mortar-mixing box, and the skeletons of Fourth of July floats covered with decomposing plaster shields and faded red, white, and blue bunting. At the end was an abortive stage. The room was large enough for the community dances which Mrs. Nat Hicks advocated. But Carol was after something bigger than dances.
In the afternoon she scampered to the public library.
The library was open three afternoons and four evenings a week. It was housed in an old dwelling, sufficient but unattractive. Carol caught herself picturing pleasanter reading-rooms, chairs for children, an art collection, a librarian young enough to experiment.
She berated herself, "Stop this fever of reforming everything! I WILL be satisfied with the library! The city hall is enough for a beginning. And it's really an excellent library. It's — it isn't so bad. . . . Is it possible that I am to find dishonesties and stupidity in every human activity I encounter? In schools and business and government and everything? Is there never any contentment, never any rest?"
She shook her head as though she were shaking off water, and hastened into the library, a young, light, amiable presence, modest in unbuttoned fur coat, blue suit, fresh organdy collar, and tan boots roughened from scuffling snow. Miss Villets stared at her, and Carol purred, "I was so sorry not to see you at the Thanatopsis yesterday. Vida said you might come."
"Oh. You went to the Thanatopsis. Did you enjoy it?"
"So much. Such good papers on the poets." Carol lied resolutely. "But I did think they should have had you give one of the papers on poetry!"
"Well — — Of course I'm not one of the bunch that seem to have the time to take and run the club, and if they prefer to have papers on literature by other ladies who have no literary training — after all, why should I complain? What am I but a city employee!"
"You're not! You're the one person that does — that does — oh, you do so much. Tell me, is there, uh — — Who are the people who control the club?"
Miss Villets emphatically stamped a date in the front of "Frank on the Lower Mississippi" for a small flaxen boy, glowered at him as though she were stamping a warning on his brain, and sighed:
"I wouldn't put myself forward or criticize any one for the world, and Vida is one of my best friends, and such a splendid teacher, and there is no one in town more advanced and interested in all movements, but I must say that no matter who the president or the committees are, Vida Sherwin seems to be behind them all the time, and though she is always telling me about what she is pleased to call my 'fine work in the library,' I notice that I'm not often called on for papers, though Mrs. Lyman Cass once volunteered and told me that she thought my paper on 'The Cathedrals of England' was the most interesting paper we had, the year we took up English and French travel and architecture. But — — And of course Mrs. Mott and Mrs. Warren are very important in the club, as you might expect of the wives of the superintendent of schools and the Congregational pastor, and indeed they are both very cultured, but — — No, you may regard me as entirely unimportant. I'm sure what I say doesn't matter a bit!"
"You're much too modest, and I'm going to tell Vida so, and, uh, I wonder if you can give me just a teeny bit of your time and show me where the magazine files are kept?"
She had won. She was profusely escorted to a room like a grandmother's attic, where she discovered periodicals devoted to house-decoration and town-planning, with a six-year file of the National Geographic. Miss Villets blessedly left her alone. Humming, fluttering pages with delighted fingers, Carol sat cross-legged on the floor, the magazines in heaps about her.