IT was a frail and blue and lonely Carol who trotted to the flat of the Johnson Marburys for Sunday evening supper. Mrs. Marbury was a neighbor and friend of Carol's sister; Mr. Marbury a traveling representative of an insurance company. They made a specialty of sandwich-salad-coffee lap suppers, and they regarded Carol as their literary and artistic representative. She was the one who could be depended upon to appreciate the Caruso phonograph record, and the Chinese lantern which Mr. Marbury had brought back as his present from San Francisco. Carol found the Marburys admiring and therefore admirable.
This September Sunday evening she wore a net frock with a pale pink lining. A nap had soothed away the faint lines of tiredness beside her eyes. She was young, naive, stimulated by the coolness. She flung her coat at the chair in the hall of the flat, and exploded into the green-plush living-room. The familiar group were trying to be conversational. She saw Mr. Marbury, a woman teacher of gymnastics in a high school, a chief clerk from the Great Northern Railway offices, a young lawyer. But there was also a stranger, a thick tall man of thirty-six or -seven, with stolid brown hair, lips used to giving orders, eyes which followed everything good-naturedly, and clothes which you could never quite remember.
Mr. Marbury boomed, "Carol, come over here and meet Doc Kennicott — Dr. Will Kennicott of Gopher Prairie. He does all our insurance-examining up in that neck of the woods, and they do say he's some doctor!"
As she edged toward the stranger and murmured nothing in particular, Carol remembered that Gopher Prairie was a Minnesota wheat-prairie town of something over three thousand people.
"Pleased to meet you," stated Dr. Kennicott. His hand was strong; the palm soft, but the back weathered, showing golden hairs against firm red skin.
He looked at her as though she was an agreeable discovery. She tugged her hand free and fluttered, "I must go out to the kitchen and help Mrs. Marbury." She did not speak to him again till, after she had heated the rolls and passed the paper napkins, Mr. Marbury captured her with a loud, "Oh, quit fussing now. Come over here and sit down and tell us how's tricks." He herded her to a sofa with Dr. Kennicott, who was rather vague about the eyes, rather drooping of bulky shoulder, as though he was wondering what he was expected to do next. As their host left them, Kennicott awoke:
"Marbury tells me you're a high mogul in the public library. I was surprised. Didn't hardly think you were old enough. I thought you were a girl, still in college maybe."
"Oh, I'm dreadfully old. I expect to take to a lip-stick, and to find a gray hair any morning now."
"Huh! You must be frightfully old — prob'ly too old to be my granddaughter, I guess!"
Thus in the Vale of Arcady nymph and satyr beguiled the hours; precisely thus, and not in honeyed pentameters, discoursed Elaine and the worn Sir Launcelot in the pleached alley.
"How do you like your work?" asked the doctor.
"It's pleasant, but sometimes I feel shut off from things — the steel stacks, and the everlasting cards smeared all over with red rubber stamps."
"Don't you get sick of the city?"
"St. Paul? Why, don't you like it? I don't know of any lovelier view than when you stand on Summit Avenue and look across Lower Town to the Mississippi cliffs and the upland farms beyond."
"I know but — — Of course I've spent nine years around the Twin Cities — took my B.A. and M.D. over at the U., and had my internship in a hospital in Minneapolis, but still, oh well, you don't get to know folks here, way you do up home. I feel I've got something to say about running Gopher Prairie, but you take it in a big city of two-three hundred thousand, and I'm just one flea on the dog's back. And then I like country driving, and the hunting in the fall. Do you know Gopher Prairie at all?"
"No, but I hear it's a very nice town."
"Nice? Say honestly — — Of course I may be prejudiced, but I've seen an awful lot of towns — one time I went to Atlantic City for the American Medical Association meeting, and I spent practically a week in New York! But I never saw a town that had such up-and-coming people as Gopher Prairie. Bresnahan — you know — the famous auto manufacturer — he comes from Gopher Prairie. Born and brought up there! And it's a darn pretty town. Lots of fine maples and box-elders, and there's two of the dandiest lakes you ever saw, right near town! And we've got seven miles of cement walks already, and building more every day! Course a lot of these towns still put up with plank walks, but not for us, you bet!"
(Why was she thinking of Stewart Snyder?)
"Gopher Prairie is going to have a great future. Some of the best dairy and wheat land in the state right near there — some of it selling right now at one-fifty an acre, and I bet it will go up to two and a quarter in ten years!"
"Is — — Do you like your profession?"
"Nothing like it. Keeps you out, and yet you have a chance to loaf in the office for a change."
"I don't mean that way. I mean — it's such an opportunity for sympathy."
Dr. Kennicott launched into a heavy, "Oh, these Dutch farmers don't want sympathy. All they need is a bath and a good dose of salts."
Carol must have flinched, for instantly he was urging, "What I mean is — I don't want you to think I'm one of these old salts-and-quinine peddlers, but I mean: so many of my patients are husky farmers that I suppose I get kind of case-hardened."
"It seems to me that a doctor could transform a whole community, if he wanted to — if he saw it. He's usually the only man in the neighborhood who has any scientific training, isn't he?"
"Yes, that's so, but I guess most of us get rusty. We land in a rut of obstetrics and typhoid and busted legs. What we need is women like you to jump on us. It'd be you that would transform the town."
"No, I couldn't. Too flighty. I did used to think about doing just that, curiously enough, but I seem to have drifted away from the idea. Oh, I'm a fine one to be lecturing you!"
"No! You're just the one. You have ideas without having lost feminine charm. Say! Don't you think there's a lot of these women that go out for all these movements and so on that sacrifice — — "
After his remarks upon suffrage he abruptly questioned her about herself. His kindliness and the firmness of his personality enveloped her and she accepted him as one who had a right to know what she thought and wore and ate and read. He was positive. He had grown from a sketched-in stranger to a friend, whose gossip was important news. She noticed the healthy solidity of his chest. His nose, which had seemed irregular and large, was suddenly virile.
She was jarred out of this serious sweetness when Marbury bounced over to them and with horrible publicity yammered, "Say, what do you two think you're doing? Telling fortunes or making love? Let me warn you that the doc is a frisky bacheldore, Carol. Come on now, folks, shake a leg. Let's have some stunts or a dance or something."
She did not have another word with Dr. Kennicott until their parting:
"Been a great pleasure to meet you, Miss Milford. May I see you some time when I come down again? I'm here quite often — taking patients to hospitals for majors, and so on."
"Why — — "
"What's your address?"
"You can ask Mr. Marbury next time you come down — if you really want to know!"
"Want to know? Say, you wait!"
Of the love-making of Carol and Will Kennicott there is nothing to be told which may not be heard on every summer evening, on every shadowy block.
They were biology and mystery; their speech was slang phrases and flares of poetry; their silences were contentment, or shaky crises when his arm took her shoulder. All the beauty of youth, first discovered when it is passing — and all the commonplaceness of a well-to-do unmarried man encountering a pretty girl at the time when she is slightly weary of her employment and sees no glory ahead nor any man she is glad to serve.