Bresnahan had borrowed Jackson Elder's motor; he stopped at the Kennicotts'; he bawled at Carol, rocking with Hugh on the porch, "Better come for a ride."
She wanted to snub him. "Thanks so much, but I'm being maternal."
"Bring him along! Bring him along!" Bresnahan was out of the seat, stalking up the sidewalk, and the rest of her protests and dignities were feeble.
She did not bring Hugh along.
Bresnahan was silent for a mile, in words, But he looked at her as though he meant her to know that he understood everything she thought.
She observed how deep was his chest.
"Lovely fields over there," he said.
"You really like them? There's no profit in them."
He chuckled. "Sister, you can't get away with it. I'm onto you. You consider me a big bluff. Well, maybe I am. But so are you, my dear — and pretty enough so that I'd try to make love to you, if I weren't afraid you'd slap me."
"Mr. Bresnahan, do you talk that way to your wife's friends? And do you call them 'sister'?"
"As a matter of fact, I do! And I make 'em like it. Score two!" But his chuckle was not so rotund, and he was very attentive to the ammeter.
In a moment he was cautiously attacking: "That's a wonderful boy, Will Kennicott. Great work these country practitioners are doing. The other day, in Washington, I was talking to a big scientific shark, a professor in Johns Hopkins medical school, and he was saying that no one has ever sufficiently appreciated the general practitioner and the sympathy and help he gives folks. These crack specialists, the young scientific fellows, they're so cocksure and so wrapped up in their laboratories that they miss the human element. Except in the case of a few freak diseases that no respectable human being would waste his time having, it's the old doc that keeps a community well, mind and body. And strikes me that Will is one of the steadiest and clearest-headed counter practitioners I've ever met. Eh?"
"I'm sure he is. He's a servant of reality."
"Come again? Um. Yes. All of that, whatever that is. . . . Say, child, you don't care a whole lot for Gopher Prairie, if I'm not mistaken."
"There's where you're missing a big chance. There's nothing to these cities. Believe me, I KNOW! This is a good town, as they go. You're lucky to be here. I wish I could shy on!"
"Very well, why don't you?"
"Huh? Why — Lord — can't get away fr — — "
"You don't have to stay. I do! So I want to change it. Do you know that men like you, prominent men, do quite a reasonable amount of harm by insisting that your native towns and native states are perfect? It's you who encourage the denizens not to change. They quote you, and go on believing that they live in paradise, and — — " She clenched her fist. "The incredible dullness of it!"
"Suppose you were right. Even so, don't you think you waste a lot of thundering on one poor scared little town? Kind of mean!"
"I tell you it's dull. DULL!"
"The folks don't find it dull. These couples like the Haydocks have a high old time; dances and cards — — "
"They don't. They're bored. Almost every one here is. Vacuousness and bad manners and spiteful gossip — that's what I hate."
"Those things — course they're here. So are they in Boston! And every place else! Why, the faults you find in this town are simply human nature, and never will be changed."
"Perhaps. But in a Boston all the good Carols (I'll admit I have no faults) can find one another and play. But here — I'm alone, in a stale pool — except as it's stirred by the great Mr. Bresnahan!"
"My Lord, to hear you tell it, a fellow 'd think that all the denizens, as you impolitely call 'em, are so confoundedly unhappy that it's a wonder they don't all up and commit suicide. But they seem to struggle along somehow!"
"They don't know what they miss. And anybody can endure anything. Look at men in mines and in prisons."
He drew up on the south shore of Lake Minniemashie. He glanced across the reeds reflected on the water, the quiver of wavelets like crumpled tinfoil, the distant shores patched with dark woods, silvery oats and deep yellow wheat. He patted her hand. "Sis — — Carol, you're a darling girl, but you're difficult. Know what I think?"
"Humph. Maybe you do, but — — My humble (not too humble!) opinion is that you like to be different. You like to think you're peculiar. Why, if you knew how many tens of thousands of women, especially in New York, say just what you do, you'd lose all the fun of thinking you're a lone genius and you'd be on the band-wagon whooping it up for Gopher Prairie and a good decent family life. There's always about a million young women just out of college who want to teach their grandmothers how to suck eggs."
"How proud you are of that homely rustic metaphor! You use it at 'banquets' and directors' meetings, and boast of your climb from a humble homestead."
"Huh! You may have my number. I'm not telling. But look here: You're so prejudiced against Gopher Prairie that you overshoot the mark; you antagonize those who might be inclined to agree with you in some particulars but — — Great guns, the town can't be all wrong!"
"No, it isn't. But it could be. Let me tell you a fable. Imagine a cavewoman complaining to her mate. She doesn't like one single thing; she hates the damp cave, the rats running over her bare legs, the stiff skin garments, the eating of half-raw meat, her husband's bushy face, the constant battles, and the worship of the spirits who will hoodoo her unless she gives the priests her best claw necklace. Her man protests, 'But it can't all be wrong!' and he thinks he has reduced her to absurdity. Now you assume that a world which produces a Percy Bresnahan and a Velvet Motor Company must be civilized. It is? Aren't we only about half-way along in barbarism? I suggest Mrs. Bogart as a test. And we'll continue in barbarism just as long as people as nearly intelligent as you continue to defend things as they are because they are."
"You're a fair spieler, child. But, by golly, I'd like to see you try to design a new manifold, or run a factory and keep a lot of your fellow reds from Czech-slovenski-magyar-godknowswheria on the job! You'd drop your theories so darn quick! I'm not any defender of things as they are. Sure. They're rotten. Only I'm sensible."
He preached his gospel: love of outdoors, Playing the Game, loyalty to friends. She had the neophyte's shock of discovery that, outside of tracts, conservatives do not tremble and find no answer when an iconoclast turns on them, but retort with agility and confusing statistics.
He was so much the man, the worker, the friend, that she liked him when she most tried to stand out against him; he was so much the successful executive that she did not want him to despise her. His manner of sneering at what he called "parlor socialists" (though the phrase was not overwhelmingly new) had a power which made her wish to placate his company of well-fed, speed-loving administrators. When he demanded, "Would you like to associate with nothing but a lot of turkey-necked, horn-spectacled nuts that have adenoids and need a hair-cut, and that spend all their time kicking about 'conditions' and never do a lick of work?" she said, "No, but just the same — — " When he asserted, "Even if your cavewoman was right in knocking the whole works, I bet some red-blooded Regular Fellow, some real He-man, found her a nice dry cave, and not any whining criticizing radical," she wriggled her head feebly, between a nod and a shake.
His large hands, sensual lips, easy voice supported his self-confidence. He made her feel young and soft — as Kennicott had once made her feel. She had nothing to say when he bent his powerful head and experimented, "My dear, I'm sorry I'm going away from this town. You'd be a darling child to play with. You ARE pretty! Some day in Boston I'll show you how we buy a lunch. Well, hang it, got to be starting back."
The only answer to his gospel of beef which she could find, when she was home, was a wail of "But just the same — — "
She did not see him again before he departed for Washington.
His eyes remained. His glances at her lips and hair and shoulders had revealed to her that she was not a wife-and-mother alone, but a girl; that there still were men in the world, as there had been in college days.
That admiration led her to study Kennicott, to tear at the shroud of intimacy, to perceive the strangeness of the most familiar.