Main Street By Sinclair Lewis Chapters 14-16

"But, dear, the trouble with that film — it wasn't that it got in so many legs, but that it giggled coyly and promised to show more of them, and then didn't keep the promise. It was Peeping Tom's idea of humor."

"I don't get you. Look here now — — "

She lay awake, while he rumbled with sleep

"I must go on. My 'crank ideas;' he calls them. I thought that adoring him, watching him operate, would be enough. It isn't. Not after the first thrill.

"I don't want to hurt him. But I must go on.

"It isn't enough, to stand by while he fills an automobile radiator and chucks me bits of information.

"If I stood by and admired him long enough, I would be content. I would become a 'nice little woman.' The Village Virus. Already — — I'm not reading anything. I haven't touched the piano for a week. I'm letting the days drown in worship of 'a good deal, ten plunks more per acre.' I won't! I won't succumb!

"How? I've failed at everything: the Thanatopsis, parties, pioneers, city hall, Guy and Vida. But — — It doesn't MATTER! I'm not trying to 'reform the town' now. I'm not trying to organize Browning Clubs, and sit in clean white kids yearning up at lecturers with ribbony eyeglasses. I am trying to save my soul.

"Will Kennicott, asleep there, trusting me, thinking he holds me. And I'm leaving him. All of me left him when he laughed at me. It wasn't enough for him that I admired him; I must change myself and grow like him. He takes advantage. No more. It's finished. I will go on."

IV

Her violin lay on top of the upright piano. She picked it up. Since she had last touched it the dried strings had snapped, and upon it lay a gold and crimson cigar-band.

V

She longed to see Guy Pollock, for the confirming of the brethren in the faith. But Kennicott's dominance was heavy upon her. She could not determine whether she was checked by fear or him, or by inertia — by dislike of the emotional labor of the "scenes" which would be involved in asserting independence. She was like the revolutionist at fifty: not afraid of death, but bored by the probability of bad steaks and bad breaths and sitting up all night on windy barricades.

The second evening after the movies she impulsively summoned Vida Sherwin and Guy to the house for pop-corn and cider. In the living-room Vida and Kennicott debated "the value of manual training in grades below the eighth," while Carol sat beside Guy at the dining table, buttering pop-corn. She was quickened by the speculation in his eyes. She murmured:

"Guy, do you want to help me?"

"My dear! How?"

"I don't know!"

He waited.

"I think I want you to help me find out what has made the darkness of the women. Gray darkness and shadowy trees. We're all in it, ten million women, young married women with good prosperous husbands, and business women in linen collars, and grandmothers that gad out to teas, and wives of under-paid miners, and farmwives who really like to make butter and go to church. What is it we want — and need? Will Kennicott there would say that we need lots of children and hard work. But it isn't that. There's the same discontent in women with eight children and one more coming — always one more coming! And you find it in stenographers and wives who scrub, just as much as in girl college-graduates who wonder how they can escape their kind parents. What do we want?"

"Essentially, I think, you are like myself, Carol; you want to go back to an age of tranquillity and charming manners. You want to enthrone good taste again."

"Just good taste? Fastidious people? Oh — no! I believe all of us want the same things — we're all together, the industrial workers and the women and the farmers and the negro race and the Asiatic colonies, and even a few of the Respectables. It's all the same revolt, in all the classes that have waited and taken advice. I think perhaps we want a more conscious life. We're tired of drudging and sleeping and dying. We're tired of seeing just a few people able to be individualists. We're tired of always deferring hope till the next generation. We're tired of hearing the politicians and priests and cautious reformers (and the husbands!) coax us, 'Be calm! Be patient! Wait! We have the plans for a Utopia already made; just give us a bit more time and we'll produce it; trust us; we're wiser than you.' For ten thousand years they've said that. We want our Utopia NOW — and we're going to try our hands at it. All we want is — everything for all of us! For every housewife and every longshoreman and every Hindu nationalist and every teacher. We want everything. We shatn't get it. So we shatn't ever be content — — "

She wondered why he was wincing. He broke in:

"See here, my dear, I certainly hope you don't class yourself with a lot of trouble-making labor-leaders! Democracy is all right theoretically, and I'll admit there are industrial injustices, but I'd rather have them than see the world reduced to a dead level of mediocrity. I refuse to believe that you have anything in common with a lot of laboring men rowing for bigger wages so that they can buy wretched flivvers and hideous player-pianos and — — "

At this second, in Buenos Ayres, a newspaper editor broke his routine of being bored by exchanges to assert, "Any injustice is better than seeing the world reduced to a gray level of scientific dullness." At this second a clerk standing at the bar of a New York saloon stopped milling his secret fear of his nagging office-manager long enough to growl at the chauffeur beside him, "Aw, you socialists make me sick! I'm an individualist. I ain't going to be nagged by no bureaus and take orders off labor-leaders. And mean to say a hobo's as good as you and me?"

At this second Carol realized that for all Guy's love of dead elegances his timidity was as depressing to her as the bulkiness of Sam Clark. She realized that he was not a mystery, as she had excitedly believed; not a romantic messenger from the World Outside on whom she could count for escape. He belonged to Gopher Prairie, absolutely. She was snatched back from a dream of far countries, and found herself on Main Street.

He was completing his protest, "You don't want to be mixed up in all this orgy of meaningless discontent?"

She soothed him. "No, I don't. I'm not heroic. I'm scared by all the fighting that's going on in the world. I want nobility and adventure, but perhaps I want still more to curl on the hearth with some one I love."

"Would you — — "

He did not finish it. He picked up a handful of pop-corn, let it run through his fingers, looked at her wistfully.

With the loneliness of one who has put away a possible love Carol saw that he was a stranger. She saw that he had never been anything but a frame on which she had hung shining garments. If she had let him diffidently make love to her, it was not because she cared, but because she did not care, because it did not matter.

She smiled at him with the exasperating tactfulness of a woman checking a flirtation; a smile like an airy pat on the arm. She sighed, "You're a dear to let me tell you my imaginary troubles." She bounced up, and trilled, "Shall we take the pop-corn in to them now?"

Guy looked after her desolately.

While she teased Vida and Kennicott she was repeating, "I must go on."

VI

Miles Bjornstam, the pariah "Red Swede," had brought his circular saw and portable gasoline engine to the house, to cut the cords of poplar for the kitchen range. Kennicott had given the order; Carol knew nothing of it till she heard the ringing of the saw, and glanced out to see Bjornstam, in black leather jacket and enormous ragged purple mittens, pressing sticks against the whirling blade, and flinging the stove-lengths to one side. The red irritable motor kept up a red irritable "tip-tip-tip-tip-tip-tip." The whine of the saw rose till it simulated the shriek of a fire-alarm whistle at night, but always at the end it gave a lively metallic clang, and in the stillness she heard the flump of the cut stick falling on the pile.

She threw a motor robe over her, ran out. Bjornstam welcomed her, "Well, well, well! Here's old Miles, fresh as ever. Well say, that's all right; he ain't even begun to be cheeky yet; next summer he's going to take you out on his horse-trading trip, clear into Idaho."

"Yes, and I may go!"

"How's tricks? Crazy about the town yet?"

"No, but I probably shall be, some day."

"Don't let 'em get you. Kick 'em in the face!"

He shouted at her while he worked. The pile of stove-wood grew astonishingly. The pale bark of the poplar sticks was mottled with lichens of sage-green and dusty gray; the newly sawed ends were fresh-colored, with the agreeable roughness of a woolen muffler. To the sterile winter air the wood gave a scent of March sap.

Kennicott telephoned that he was going into the country. Bjornstam had not finished his work at noon, and she invited him to have dinner with Bea in the kitchen. She wished that she were independent enough to dine with these her guests. She considered their friendliness, she sneered at "social distinctions," she raged at her own taboos — and she continued to regard them as retainers and herself as a lady. She sat in the dining-room and listened through the door to Bjornstam's booming and Bea's giggles. She was the more absurd to herself in that, after the rite of dining alone, she could go out to the kitchen, lean against the sink, and talk to them.

They were attracted to each other; a Swedish Othello and Desdemona, more useful and amiable than their prototypes. Bjornstam told his scapes: selling horses in a Montana mining-camp, breaking a log-jam, being impertinent to a "two-fisted" millionaire lumberman. Bea gurgled "Oh my!" and kept his coffee cup filled.

He took a long time to finish the wood. He had frequently to go into the kitchen to get warm. Carol heard him confiding to Bea, "You're a darn nice Swede girl. I guess if I had a woman like you I wouldn't be such a sorehead. Gosh, your kitchen is clean; makes an old bach feel sloppy. Say, that's nice hair you got. Huh? Me fresh? Saaaay, girl, if I ever do get fresh, you'll know it. Why, I could pick you up with one finger, and hold you in the air long enough to read Robert J. Ingersoll clean through. Ingersoll? Oh, he's a religious writer. Sure. You'd like him fine."

When he drove off he waved to Bea; and Carol, lonely at the window above, was envious of their pastoral.

"And I — — But I will go on."

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