Mrs. Bogart spoke of the eloquence of the Reverend Mr. Zitterel, the coldness of cold days, the price of poplar wood, Dave Dyer's new hair-cut, and Cy Bogart's essential piety. "As I said to his Sunday School teacher, Cy may be a little wild, but that's because he's got so much better brains than a lot of these boys, and this farmer that claims he caught Cy stealing 'beggies, is a liar, and I ought to have the law on him."
Mrs. Bogart went thoroughly into the rumor that the girl waiter at Billy's Lunch was not all she might be — or, rather, was quite all she might be.
"My lands, what can you expect when everybody knows what her mother was? And if these traveling salesmen would let her alone she would be all right, though I certainly don't believe she ought to be allowed to think she can pull the wool over our eyes. The sooner she's sent to the school for incorrigible girls down at Sauk Centre, the better for all and — — Won't you just have a cup of coffee, Carol dearie, I'm sure you won't mind old Aunty Bogart calling you by your first name when you think how long I've known Will, and I was such a friend of his dear lovely mother when she lived here and — was that fur cap expensive? But — — Don't you think it's awful, the way folks talk in this town?"
Mrs. Bogart hitched her chair nearer. Her large face, with its disturbing collection of moles and lone black hairs, wrinkled cunningly. She showed her decayed teeth in a reproving smile, and in the confidential voice of one who scents stale bedroom scandal she breathed:
"I just don't see how folks can talk and act like they do. You don't know the things that go on under cover. This town — why it's only the religious training I've given Cy that's kept him so innocent of — things. Just the other day — — I never pay no attention to stories, but I heard it mighty good and straight that Harry Haydock is carrying on with a girl that clerks in a store down in Minneapolis, and poor Juanita not knowing anything about it — though maybe it's the judgment of God, because before she married Harry she acted up with more than one boy — — Well, I don't like to say it, and maybe I ain't up-to-date, like Cy says, but I always believed a lady shouldn't even give names to all sorts of dreadful things, but just the same I know there was at least one case where Juanita and a boy — well, they were just dreadful. And — and — — Then there's that Ole Jenson the grocer, that thinks he's so plaguey smart, and I know he made up to a farmer's wife and — — And this awful man Bjornstam that does chores, and Nat Hicks and — — "
There was, it seemed, no person in town who was not living a life of shame except Mrs. Bogart, and naturally she resented it.
She knew. She had always happened to be there. Once, she whispered, she was going by when an indiscreet window-shade had been left up a couple of inches. Once she had noticed a man and woman holding hands, and right at a Methodist sociable!
"Another thing — — Heaven knows I never want to start trouble, but I can't help what I see from my back steps, and I notice your hired girl Bea carrying on with the grocery boys and all — — "
"Mrs. Bogart! I'd trust Bea as I would myself!"
"Oh, dearie, you don't understand me! I'm sure she's a good girl. I mean she's green, and I hope that none of these horrid young men that there are around town will get her into trouble! It's their parents' fault, letting them run wild and hear evil things. If I had my way there wouldn't be none of them, not boys nor girls neither, allowed to know anything about — about things till they was married. It's terrible the bald way that some folks talk. It just shows and gives away what awful thoughts they got inside them, and there's nothing can cure them except coming right to God and kneeling down like I do at prayer-meeting every Wednesday evening, and saying, 'O God, I would be a miserable sinner except for thy grace.'
"I'd make every last one of these brats go to Sunday School and learn to think about nice things 'stead of about cigarettes and goings-on — and these dances they have at the lodges are the worst thing that ever happened to this town, lot of young men squeezing girls and finding out — — Oh, it's dreadful. I've told the mayor he ought to put a stop to them and — — There was one boy in this town, I don't want to be suspicious or uncharitable but — — "
It was half an hour before Carol escaped.
She stopped on her own porch and thought viciously:
"If that woman is on the side of the angels, then I have no choice; I must be on the side of the devil. But — isn't she like me? She too wants to 'reform the town'! She too criticizes everybody! She too thinks the men are vulgar and limited! AM I LIKE HER? This is ghastly!"
That evening she did not merely consent to play cribbage with Kennicott; she urged him to play; and she worked up a hectic interest in land-deals and Sam Clark.
In courtship days Kennicott had shown her a photograph of Nels Erdstrom's baby and log cabin, but she had never seen the Erdstroms. They had become merely "patients of the doctor." Kennicott telephoned her on a mid-December afternoon, "Want to throw your coat on and drive out to Erdstrom's with me? Fairly warm. Nels got the jaundice."
"Oh yes!" She hastened to put on woolen stockings, high boots, sweater, muffler, cap, mittens.
The snow was too thick and the ruts frozen too hard for the motor. They drove out in a clumsy high carriage. Tucked over them was a blue woolen cover, prickly to her wrists, and outside of it a buffalo robe, humble and moth-eaten now, used ever since the bison herds had streaked the prairie a few miles to the west.
The scattered houses between which they passed in town were small and desolate in contrast to the expanse of huge snowy yards and wide street. They crossed the railroad tracks, and instantly were in the farm country. The big piebald horses snorted clouds of steam, and started to trot. The carriage squeaked in rhythm. Kennicott drove with clucks of "There boy, take it easy!" He was thinking. He paid no attention to Carol. Yet it was he who commented, "Pretty nice, over there," as they approached an oak-grove where shifty winter sunlight quivered in the hollow between two snow-drifts.
They drove from the natural prairie to a cleared district which twenty years ago had been forest. The country seemed to stretch unchanging to the North Pole: low hill, brush-scraggly bottom, reedy creek, muskrat mound, fields with frozen brown clods thrust up through the snow.
Her ears and nose were pinched; her breath frosted her collar; her fingers ached.
"Getting colder," she said.
That was all their conversation for three miles. Yet she was happy.
They reached Nels Erdstrom's at four, and with a throb she recognized the courageous venture which had lured her to Gopher Prairie: the cleared fields, furrows among stumps, a log cabin chinked with mud and roofed with dry hay. But Nels had prospered. He used the log cabin as a barn; and a new house reared up, a proud, unwise, Gopher Prairie house, the more naked and ungraceful in its glossy white paint and pink trimmings. Every tree had been cut down. The house was so unsheltered, so battered by the wind, so bleakly thrust out into the harsh clearing, that Carol shivered. But they were welcomed warmly enough in the kitchen, with its crisp new plaster, its black and nickel range, its cream separator in a corner.
Mrs. Erdstrom begged her to sit in the parlor, where there was a phonograph and an oak and leather davenport, the prairie farmer's proofs of social progress, but she dropped down by the kitchen stove and insisted, "Please don't mind me." When Mrs. Erdstrom had followed the doctor out of the room Carol glanced in a friendly way at the grained pine cupboard, the framed Lutheran Konfirmations Attest, the traces of fried eggs and sausages on the dining table against the wall, and a jewel among calendars, presenting not only a lithographic young woman with cherry lips, and a Swedish advertisement of Axel Egge's grocery, but also a thermometer and a match-holder.
She saw that a boy of four or five was staring at her from the hall, a boy in gingham shirt and faded corduroy trousers, but large-eyed, firm-mouthed, wide-browed. He vanished, then peeped in again, biting his knuckles, turning his shoulder toward her in shyness.
Didn't she remember — what was it? — Kennicott sitting beside her at Fort Snelling, urging, "See how scared that baby is. Needs some woman like you."
Magic had fluttered about her then — magic of sunset and cool air and the curiosity of lovers. She held out her hands as much to that sanctity as to the boy.
He edged into the room, doubtfully sucking his thumb.
"Hello," she said. "What's your name?"
"Hee, hee, hee!"
"You're quite right. I agree with you. Silly people like me always ask children their names."
"Hee, hee, hee!"
"Come here and I'll tell you the story of — well, I don't know what it will be about, but it will have a slim heroine and a Prince Charming."