While she was listening to Mrs. Nodelquist's account of how many thousands of farmers' wives used the rest-room every year, and how much they "appreciated the kindness of the ladies in providing them with this lovely place, and all free," she thought, "Kindness nothing! The kind-ladies' husbands get the farmers' trade. This is mere commercial accommodation. And it's horrible. It ought to be the most charming room in town, to comfort women sick of prairie kitchens. Certainly it ought to have a clear window, so that they can see the metropolitan life go by. Some day I'm going to make a better rest-room — a club-room. Why! I've already planned that as part of my Georgian town hall!"
So it chanced that she was plotting against the peace of the Thanatopsis at her third meeting (which covered Scandinavian, Russian, and Polish Literature, with remarks by Mrs. Leonard Warren on the sinful paganism of the Russian so-called church). Even before the entrance of the coffee and hot rolls Carol seized on Mrs. Champ Perry, the kind and ample-bosomed pioneer woman who gave historic dignity to the modern matrons of the Thanatopsis. She poured out her plans. Mrs. Perry nodded and stroked Carol's hand, but at the end she sighed:
"I wish I could agree with you, dearie. I'm sure you're one of the Lord's anointed (even if we don't see you at the Baptist Church as often as we'd like to)! But I'm afraid you're too tender-hearted. When Champ and I came here we teamed-it with an ox-cart from Sauk Centre to Gopher Prairie, and there was nothing here then but a stockade and a few soldiers and some log cabins. When we wanted salt pork and gunpowder, we sent out a man on horseback, and probably he was shot dead by the Injuns before he got back. We ladies — of course we were all farmers at first — we didn't expect any rest-room in those days. My, we'd have thought the one they have now was simply elegant! My house was roofed with hay and it leaked something terrible when it rained — only dry place was under a shelf.
"And when the town grew up we thought the new city hall was real fine. And I don't see any need for dance-halls. Dancing isn't what it was, anyway. We used to dance modest, and we had just as much fun as all these young folks do now with their terrible Turkey Trots and hugging and all. But if they must neglect the Lord's injunction that young girls ought to be modest, then I guess they manage pretty well at the K. P. Hall and the Oddfellows', even if some of tie lodges don't always welcome a lot of these foreigners and hired help to all their dances. And I certainly don't see any need of a farm-bureau or this domestic science demonstration you talk about. In my day the boys learned to farm by honest sweating, and every gal could cook, or her ma learned her how across her knee! Besides, ain't there a county agent at Wakamin? He comes here once a fortnight, maybe. That's enough monkeying with this scientific farming — Champ says there's nothing to it anyway.
"And as for a lecture hall — haven't we got the churches? Good deal better to listen to a good old-fashioned sermon than a lot of geography and books and things that nobody needs to know — more 'n enough heathen learning right here in the Thanatopsis. And as for trying to make a whole town in this Colonial architecture you talk about — — I do love nice things; to this day I run ribbons into my petticoats, even if Champ Perry does laugh at me, the old villain! But just the same I don't believe any of us old-timers would like to see the town that we worked so hard to build being tore down to make a place that wouldn't look like nothing but some Dutch story-book and not a bit like the place we loved. And don't you think it's sweet now? All the trees and lawns? And such comfy houses, and hot-water heat and electric lights and telephones and cement walks and everything? Why, I thought everybody from the Twin Cities always said it was such a beautiful town!"
Carol forswore herself; declared that Gopher Prairie had the color of Algiers and the gaiety of Mardi Gras.
Yet the next afternoon she was pouncing on Mrs. Lyman Cass, the hook-nosed consort of the owner of the flour-mill.
Mrs. Cass's parlor belonged to the crammed-Victorian school, as Mrs. Luke Dawson's belonged to the bare-Victorian. It was furnished on two principles: First, everything must resemble something else. A rocker had a back like a lyre, a near-leather seat imitating tufted cloth, and arms like Scotch Presbyterian lions; with knobs, scrolls, shields, and spear-points on unexpected portions of the chair. The second principle of the crammed-Victorian school was that every inch of the interior must be filled with useless objects.
The walls of Mrs. Cass's parlor were plastered with "hand-painted" pictures, "buckeye" pictures, of birch-trees, news-boys, puppies, and church-steeples on Christmas Eve; with a plaque depicting the Exposition Building in Minneapolis, burnt-wood portraits of Indian chiefs of no tribe in particular, a pansy-decked poetic motto, a Yard of Roses, and the banners of the educational institutions attended by the Casses' two sons — Chicopee Falls Business College and McGillicuddy University. One small square table contained a card-receiver of painted china with a rim of wrought and gilded lead, a Family Bible, Grant's Memoirs, the latest novel by Mrs. Gene Stratton Porter, a wooden model of a Swiss chalet which was also a bank for dimes, a polished abalone shell holding one black-headed pin and one empty spool, a velvet pin-cushion in a gilded metal slipper with "Souvenir of Troy, N. Y." stamped on the toe, and an unexplained red glass dish which had warts.
Mrs. Cass's first remark was, "I must show you all my pretty things and art objects."
She piped, after Carol's appeal:
"I see. You think the New England villages and Colonial houses are so much more cunning than these Middlewestern towns. I'm glad you feel that way. You'll be interested to know I was born in Vermont."
"And don't you think we ought to try to make Gopher Prai — — "
"My gracious no! We can't afford it. Taxes are much too high as it is. We ought to retrench, and not let the city council spend another cent. Uh — — Don't you think that was a grand paper Mrs. Westlake read about Tolstoy? I was so glad she pointed out how all his silly socialistic ideas failed."
What Mrs. Cass said was what Kennicott said, that evening. Not in twenty years would the council propose or Gopher Prairie vote the funds for a new city hall.
Carol had avoided exposing her plans to Vida Sherwin. She was shy of the big-sister manner; Vida would either laugh at her or snatch the idea and change it to suit herself. But there was no other hope. When Vida came in to tea Carol sketched her Utopia.
Vida was soothing but decisive:
"My dear, you're all off. I would like to see it: a real gardeny place to shut out the gales. But it can't be done. What could the clubwomen accomplish?"
"Their husbands are the most important men in town. They ARE the town!"
"But the town as a separate unit is not the husband of the Thanatopsis. If you knew the trouble we had in getting the city council to spend the money and cover the pumping-station with vines! Whatever you may think of Gopher Prairie women, they're twice as progressive as the men."
"But can't the men see the ugliness?"
"They don't think it's ugly. And how can you prove it? Matter of taste. Why should they like what a Boston architect likes?"
"What they like is to sell prunes!"
"Well, why not? Anyway, the point is that you have to work from the inside, with what we have, rather than from the outside, with foreign ideas. The shell ought not to be forced on the spirit. It can't be! The bright shell has to grow out of the spirit, and express it. That means waiting. If we keep after the city council for another ten years they MAY vote the bonds for a new school."
"I refuse to believe that if they saw it the big men would be too tight-fisted to spend a few dollars each for a building — think! — dancing and lectures and plays, all done co-operatively!"
"You mention the word 'co-operative' to the merchants and they'll lynch you! The one thing they fear more than mail-order houses is that farmers' co-operative movements may get started."
"The secret trails that lead to scared pocket-books! Always, in everything! And I don't have any of the fine melodrama of fiction: the dictagraphs and speeches by torchlight. I'm merely blocked by stupidity. Oh, I know I'm a fool. I dream of Venice, and I live in Archangel and scold because the Northern seas aren't tender-colored. But at least they sha'n't keep me from loving Venice, and sometime I'll run away — — All right. No more."
She flung out her hands in a gesture of renunciation.
Early May; wheat springing up in blades like grass; corn and potatoes being planted; the land humming. For two days there had been steady rain. Even in town the roads were a furrowed welter of mud, hideous to view and difficult to cross. Main Street was a black swamp from curb to curb; on residence streets the grass parking beside the walks oozed gray water. It was prickly hot, yet the town was barren under the bleak sky. Softened neither by snow nor by waving boughs the houses squatted and scowled, revealed in their unkempt harshness.