KENNICOTT was heavily pleased by her Christmas presents, and he gave her a diamond bar-pin. But she could not persuade herself that he was much interested in the rites of the morning, in the tree she had decorated, the three stockings she had hung, the ribbons and gilt seals and hidden messages. He said only:
"Nice way to fix things, all right. What do you say we go down to Jack Elder's and have a game of five hundred this afternoon?"
She remembered her father's Christmas fantasies: the sacred old rag doll at the top of the tree, the score of cheap presents, the punch and carols, the roast chestnuts by the fire, and the gravity with which the judge opened the children's scrawly notes and took cognizance of demands for sled-rides, for opinions upon the existence of Santa Claus. She remembered him reading out a long indictment of himself for being a sentimentalist, against the peace and dignity of the State of Minnesota. She remembered his thin legs twinkling before their sled — —
She muttered unsteadily, "Must run up and put on my shoes — slippers so cold." In the not very romantic solitude of the locked bathroom she sat on the slippery edge of the tub and wept.
Kennicott had five hobbies: medicine, land-investment, Carol, motoring, and hunting. It is not certain in what order he preferred them. Solid though his enthusiasms were in the matter of medicine — his admiration of this city surgeon, his condemnation of that for tricky ways of persuading country practitioners to bring in surgical patients, his indignation about fee-splitting, his pride in a new X-ray apparatus — none of these beatified him as did motoring.
He nursed his two-year-old Buick even in winter, when it was stored in the stable-garage behind the house. He filled the grease-cups, varnished a fender, removed from beneath the back seat the debris of gloves, copper washers, crumpled maps, dust, and greasy rags. Winter noons he wandered out and stared owlishly at the car. He became excited over a fabulous "trip we might take next summer." He galloped to the station, brought home railway maps, and traced motor-routes from Gopher Prairie to Winnipeg or Des Moines or Grand Marais, thinking aloud and expecting her to be effusive about such academic questions as "Now I wonder if we could stop at Baraboo and break the jump from La Crosse to Chicago?"
To him motoring was a faith not to be questioned, a high-church cult, with electric sparks for candles, and piston-rings possessing the sanctity of altar-vessels. His liturgy was composed of intoned and metrical road-comments: "They say there's a pretty good hike from Duluth to International Falls."
Hunting was equally a devotion, full of metaphysical concepts veiled from Carol. All winter he read sporting-catalogues, and thought about remarkable past shots: "'Member that time when I got two ducks on a long chance, just at sunset?" At least once a month he drew his favorite repeating shotgun, his "pump gun," from its wrapper of greased canton flannel; he oiled the trigger, and spent silent ecstatic moments aiming at the ceiling. Sunday mornings Carol heard him trudging up to the attic and there, an hour later, she found him turning over boots, wooden duck-decoys, lunch-boxes, or reflectively squinting at old shells, rubbing their brass caps with his sleeve and shaking his head as he thought about their uselessness.
He kept the loading-tools he had used as a boy: a capper for shot-gun shells, a mold for lead bullets. When once, in a housewifely frenzy for getting rid of things, she raged, "Why don't you give these away?" he solemnly defended them, "Well, you can't tell; they might come in handy some day."
She flushed. She wondered if he was thinking of the child they would have when, as he put it, they were "sure they could afford one."
Mysteriously aching, nebulously sad, she slipped away, half-convinced but only half-convinced that it was horrible and unnatural, this postponement of release of mother-affection, this sacrifice to her opinionation and to his cautious desire for prosperity.
"But it would be worse if he were like Sam Clark — insisted on having children," she considered; then, "If Will were the Prince, wouldn't I DEMAND his child?"
Kennicott's land-deals were both financial advancement and favorite game. Driving through the country, he noticed which farms had good crops; he heard the news about the restless farmer who was "thinking about selling out here and pulling his freight for Alberta." He asked the veterinarian about the value of different breeds of stock; he inquired of Lyman Cass whether or not Einar Gyseldson really had had a yield of forty bushels of wheat to the acre. He was always consulting Julius Flickerbaugh, who handled more real estate than law, and more law than justice. He studied township maps, and read notices of auctions.
Thus he was able to buy a quarter-section of land for one hundred and fifty dollars an acre, and to sell it in a year or two, after installing a cement floor in the barn and running water in the house, for one hundred and eighty or even two hundred.
He spoke of these details to Sam Clark . . . rather often.
In all his games, cars and guns and land, he expected Carol to take an interest. But he did not give her the facts which might have created interest. He talked only of the obvious and tedious aspects; never of his aspirations in finance, nor of the mechanical principles of motors.
This month of romance she was eager to understand his hobbies. She shivered in the garage while he spent half an hour in deciding whether to put alcohol or patent non-freezing liquid into the radiator, or to drain out the water entirely. "Or no, then I wouldn't want to take her out if it turned warm — still, of course, I could fill the radiator again — wouldn't take so awful long — just take a few pails of water — still, if it turned cold on me again before I drained it — — Course there's some people that put in kerosene, but they say it rots the hose-connections and — — Where did I put that lug-wrench?"
It was at this point that she gave up being a motorist and retired to the house.
In their new intimacy he was more communicative about his practise; he informed her, with the invariable warning not to tell, that Mrs. Sunderquist had another baby coming, that the "hired girl at Howland's was in trouble." But when she asked technical questions he did not know how to answer; when she inquired, "Exactly what is the method of taking out the tonsils?" he yawned, "Tonsilectomy? Why you just — — If there's pus, you operate. Just take 'em out. Seen the newspaper? What the devil did Bea do with it?"
She did not try again.
They had gone to the "movies." The movies were almost as vital to Kennicott and the other solid citizens of Gopher Prairie as land-speculation and guns and automobiles.
The feature film portrayed a brave young Yankee who conquered a South American republic. He turned the natives from their barbarous habits of singing and laughing to the vigorous sanity, the Pep and Punch and Go, of the North; he taught them to work in factories, to wear Klassy Kollege Klothes, and to shout, "Oh, you baby doll, watch me gather in the mazuma." He changed nature itself. A mountain which had borne nothing but lilies and cedars and loafing clouds was by his Hustle so inspirited that it broke out in long wooden sheds, and piles of iron ore to be converted into steamers to carry iron ore to be converted into steamers to carry iron ore.
The intellectual tension induced by the master film was relieved by a livelier, more lyric and less philosophical drama: Mack Schnarken and the Bathing Suit Babes in a comedy of manners entitled "Right on the Coco." Mr. Schnarken was at various high moments a cook, a life-guard, a burlesque actor, and a sculptor. There was a hotel hallway up which policemen charged, only to be stunned by plaster busts hurled upon them from the innumerous doors. If the plot lacked lucidity, the dual motif of legs and pie was clear and sure. Bathing and modeling were equally sound occasions for legs; the wedding-scene was but an approach to the thunderous climax when Mr. Schnarken slipped a piece of custard pie into the clergyman's rear pocket.
The audience in the Rosebud Movie Palace squealed and wiped their eyes; they scrambled under the seats for overshoes, mittens, and mufflers, while the screen announced that next week Mr. Schnarken might be seen in a new, riproaring, extra-special superfeature of the Clean Comedy Corporation entitled, "Under Mollie's Bed."
"I'm glad," said Carol to Kennicott as they stooped before the northwest gale which was torturing the barren street, "that this is a moral country. We don't allow any of these beastly frank novels."
"Yump. Vice Society and Postal Department won't stand for them. The American people don't like filth."
"Yes. It's fine. I'm glad we have such dainty romances as 'Right on the Coco' instead."
"Say what in heck do you think you're trying to do? Kid me?"
He was silent. She awaited his anger. She meditated upon his gutter patois, the Boeotian dialect characteristic of Gopher Prairie. He laughed puzzlingly. When they came into the glow of the house he laughed again. He condescended:
"I've got to hand it to you. You're consistent, all right. I'd of thought that after getting this look-in at a lot of good decent farmers, you'd get over this high-art stuff, but you hang right on."
"Well — — " To herself: "He takes advantage of my trying to be good."
"Tell you, Carrie: There's just three classes of people: folks that haven't got any ideas at all; and cranks that kick about everything; and Regular Guys, the fellows with sticktuitiveness, that boost and get the world's work done."
"Then I'm probably a crank." She smiled negligently.
"No. I won't admit it. You do like to talk, but at a show-down you'd prefer Sam Clark to any damn long-haired artist."
"Oh — well — — "
"Oh well!" mockingly. "My, we're just going to change everything, aren't we! Going to tell fellows that have been making movies for ten years how to direct 'em; and tell architects how to build towns; and make the magazines publish nothing but a lot of highbrow stories about old maids, and about wives that don't know what they want. Oh, we're a terror! . . . Come on now, Carrie; come out of it; wake up! You've got a fine nerve, kicking about a movie because it shows a few legs! Why, you're always touting these Greek dancers, or whatever they are, that don't even wear a shimmy!"