It rose doubtfully, it staggered and trembled, but it did get up without catching — this time. Then she realized that Kennicott had forgotten to turn off the houselights. Some one out front was giggling.
She galloped round to the left wing, herself pulled the switch, looked so ferociously at Kennicott that he quaked, and fled back.
Mrs. Dyer was creeping out on the half-darkened stage. The play was begun.
And with that instant Carol realized that it was a bad play abominably acted.
Encouraging them with lying smiles, she watched her work go to pieces. The settings seemed flimsy, the lighting commonplace. She watched Guy Pollock stammer and twist his mustache when he should have been a bullying magnate; Vida Sherwin, as Grimm's timid wife, chatter at the audience as though they were her class in high-school English; Juanita, in the leading role, defy Mr. Grimm as though she were repeating a list of things she had to buy at the grocery this morning; Ella Stowbody remark "I'd like a cup of tea" as though she were reciting "Curfew Shall Not Ring Tonight"; and Dr. Gould, making love to Rita Simons, squeak, "My — my — you — are — a — won'erful — girl."
Myrtle Cass, as the office-boy, was so much pleased by the applause of her relatives, then so much agitated by the remarks of Cy Bogart, in the back row, in reference to her wearing trousers, that she could hardly be got off the stage. Only Raymie was so unsociable as to devote himself entirely to acting.
That she was right in her opinion of the play Carol was certain when Miles Bjornstam went out after the first act, and did not come back.
Between the second and third acts she called the company together, and supplicated, "I want to know something, before we have a chance to separate. Whether we're doing well or badly tonight, it is a beginning. But will we take it as merely a beginning? How many of you will pledge yourselves to start in with me, right away, tomorrow, and plan for another play, to be given in September?"
They stared at her; they nodded at Juanita's protest: "I think one's enough for a while. It's going elegant tonight, but another play — — Seems to me it'll be time enough to talk about that next fall. Carol! I hope you don't mean to hint and suggest we're not doing fine tonight? I'm sure the applause shows the audience think it's just dandy!"
Then Carol knew how completely she had failed.
As the audience seeped out she heard B. J. Gougerling the banker say to Howland the grocer, "Well, I think the folks did splendid; just as good as professionals. But I don't care much for these plays. What I like is a good movie, with auto accidents and hold-ups, and some git to it, and not all this talky-talk."
Then Carol knew how certain she was to fail again.
She wearily did not blame them, company nor audience. Herself she blamed for trying to carve intaglios in good wholesome jack-pine.
"It's the worst defeat of all. I'm beaten. By Main Street. 'I must go on.' But I can't!"
She was not vastly encouraged by the Gopher Prairie Dauntless:
. . . would be impossible to distinguish among the actors when all gave such fine account of themselves in difficult roles of this well-known New York stage play. Guy Pollock as the old millionaire could not have been bettered for his fine impersonation of the gruff old millionaire; Mrs. Harry Haydock as the young lady from the West who so easily showed the New York four-flushers where they got off was a vision of loveliness and with fine stage presence. Miss Vida Sherwin the ever popular teacher in our high school pleased as Mrs. Grimm, Dr. Gould was well suited in the role of young lover — girls you better look out, remember the doc is a bachelor. The local Four Hundred also report that he is a great hand at shaking the light fantastic tootsies in the dance. As the stenographer Rita Simons was pretty as a picture, and Miss Ella Stowbody's long and intensive study of the drama and kindred arts in Eastern schools was seen in the fine finish of her part.
. . . to no one is greater credit to be given than to Mrs. Will Kennicott on whose capable shoulders fell the burden of directing.
"So kindly," Carol mused, "so well meant, so neighborly — and so confoundedly untrue. Is it really my failure, or theirs?"
She sought to be sensible; she elaborately explained to herself that it was hysterical to condemn Gopher Prairie because it did not foam over the drama. Its justification was in its service as a market-town for farmers. How bravely and generously it did its work, forwarding the bread of the world, feeding and healing the farmers!
Then, on the corner below her husband's office, she heard a farmer holding forth:
"Sure. Course I was beaten. The shipper and the grocers here wouldn't pay us a decent price for our potatoes, even though folks in the cities were howling for 'em. So we says, well, we'll get a truck and ship 'em right down to Minneapolis. But the commission merchants there were in cahoots with the local shipper here; they said they wouldn't pay us a cent more than he would, not even if they was nearer to the market. Well, we found we could get higher prices in Chicago, but when we tried to get freight cars to ship there, the railroads wouldn't let us have 'em — even though they had cars standing empty right here in the yards. There you got it — good market, and these towns keeping us from it. Gus, that's the way these towns work all the time. They pay what they want to for our wheat, but we pay what they want us to for their clothes. Stowbody and Dawson foreclose every mortgage they can, and put in tenant farmers. The Dauntless lies to us about the Nonpartisan League, the lawyers sting us, the machinery-dealers hate to carry us over bad years, and then their daughters put on swell dresses and look at us as if we were a bunch of hoboes. Man, I'd like to burn this town!"
Kennicott observed, "There's that old crank Wes Brannigan shooting off his mouth again. Gosh, but he loves to hear himself talk! They ought to run that fellow out of town!"
She felt old and detached through high-school commencement week, which is the fete of youth in Gopher Prairie; through baccalaureate sermon, senior Parade, junior entertainment, commencement address by an Iowa clergyman who asserted that he believed in the virtue of virtuousness, and the procession of Decoration Day, when the few Civil War veterans followed Champ Perry, in his rusty forage-cap, along the spring-powdered road to the cemetery. She met Guy; she found that she had nothing to say to him. Her head ached in an aimless way. When Kennicott rejoiced, "We'll have a great time this summer; move down to the lake early and wear old clothes and act natural," she smiled, but her smile creaked.
In the prairie heat she trudged along unchanging ways, talked about nothing to tepid people, and reflected that she might never escape from them.
She was startled to find that she was using the word "escape."
Then, for three years which passed like one curt paragraph, she ceased to find anything interesting save the Bjornstams and her baby.