She remembered him in the days of courtship. He had tried to please her, then, had touched her by sheepishly wearing a colored band on his straw hat. Was it possible that those days of fumbling for each other were gone so completely? He had read books, to impress her; had said (she recalled it ironically) that she was to point out his every fault; had insisted once, as they sat in the secret place beneath the walls of Fort Snelling — —
She shut the door on her thoughts. That was sacred ground. But it WAS a shame that — —
She nervously pushed away her cake and stewed apricots.
After supper, when they had been driven in from the porch by mosquitos, when Kennicott had for the two-hundredth time in five years commented, "We must have a new screen on the porch — lets all the bugs in," they sat reading, and she noted, and detested herself for noting, and noted again his habitual awkwardness. He slumped down in one chair, his legs up on another, and he explored the recesses of his left ear with the end of his little finger — she could hear the faint smack — he kept it up — he kept it up — —
He blurted, "Oh. Forgot tell you. Some of the fellows coming in to play poker this evening. Suppose we could have some crackers and cheese and beer?"
"He might have mentioned it before. Oh well, it's his house."
The poker-party straggled in: Sam Clark, Jack Elder, Dave Dyer, Jim Howland. To her they mechanically said, "'Devenin'," but to Kennicott, in a heroic male manner, "Well, well, shall we start playing? Got a hunch I'm going to lick somebody real bad." No one suggested that she join them. She told herself that it was her own fault, because she was not more friendly; but she remembered that they never asked Mrs. Sam Clark to play.
Bresnahan would have asked her.
She sat in the living-room, glancing across the hall at the men as they humped over the dining table.
They were in shirt sleeves; smoking, chewing, spitting incessantly; lowering their voices for a moment so that she did not hear what they said and afterward giggling hoarsely; using over and over the canonical phrases: "Three to dole," "I raise you a finif," "Come on now, ante up; what do you think this is, a pink tea?" The cigar-smoke was acrid and pervasive. The firmness with which the men mouthed their cigars made the lower part of their faces expressionless, heavy, unappealing. They were like politicians cynically dividing appointments.
How could they understand her world?
Did that faint and delicate world exist? Was she a fool? She doubted her world, doubted herself, and was sick in the acid, smoke-stained air.
She slipped back into brooding upon the habituality of the house.
Kennicott was as fixed in routine as an isolated old man. At first he had amorously deceived himself into liking her experiments with food — the one medium in which she could express imagination — but now he wanted only his round of favorite dishes: steak, roast beef, boiled pig's-feet, oatmeal, baked apples. Because at some more flexible period he had advanced from oranges to grape-fruit he considered himself an epicure.
During their first autumn she had smiled over his affection for his hunting-coat, but now that the leather had come unstitched in dribbles of pale yellow thread, and tatters of canvas, smeared with dirt of the fields and grease from gun-cleaning, hung in a border of rags, she hated the thing.
Wasn't her whole life like that hunting-coat?
She knew every nick and brown spot on each piece of the set of china purchased by Kennicott's mother in 1895 — discreet china with a pattern of washed-out forget-me-nots, rimmed with blurred gold: the gravy-boat, in a saucer which did not match, the solemn and evangelical covered vegetable-dishes, the two platters.
Twenty times had Kennicott sighed over the fact that Bea had broken the other platter — the medium-sized one.
Damp black iron sink, damp whitey-yellow drain-board with shreds of discolored wood which from long scrubbing were as soft as cotton thread, warped table, alarm clock, stove bravely blackened by Oscarina but an abomination in its loose doors and broken drafts and oven that never would keep an even heat.
Carol had done her best by the kitchen: painted it white, put up curtains, replaced a six-year-old calendar by a color print. She had hoped for tiling, and a kerosene range for summer cooking, but Kennicott always postponed these expenses.
She was better acquainted with the utensils in the kitchen than with Vida Sherwin or Guy Pollock. The can-opener, whose soft gray metal handle was twisted from some ancient effort to pry open a window, was more pertinent to her than all the cathedrals in Europe; and more significant than the future of Asia was the never-settled weekly question as to whether the small kitchen knife with the unpainted handle or the second-best buckhorn carving-knife was better for cutting up cold chicken for Sunday supper.
She was ignored by the males till midnight. Her husband called, "Suppose we could have some eats, Carrie?" As she passed through the dining-room the men smiled on her, belly-smiles. None of them noticed her while she was serving the crackers and cheese and sardines and beer. They were determining the exact psychology of Dave Dyer in standing pat, two hours before.
When they were gone she said to Kennicott, "Your friends have the manners of a barroom. They expect me to wait on them like a servant. They're not so much interested in me as they would be in a waiter, because they don't have to tip me. Unfortunately! Well, good night."
So rarely did she nag in this petty, hot-weather fashion that he was astonished rather than angry. "Hey! Wait! What's the idea? I must say I don't get you. The boys — — Barroom? Why, Perce Bresnahan was saying there isn't a finer bunch of royal good fellows anywhere than just the crowd that were here tonight!"
They stood in the lower hall. He was too shocked to go on with his duties of locking the front door and winding his watch and the clock.
"Bresnahan! I'm sick of him!" She meant nothing in particular.
"Why, Carrie, he's one of the biggest men in the country! Boston just eats out of his hand!"
"I wonder if it does? How do we know but that in Boston, among well-bred people, he may be regarded as an absolute lout? The way he calls women 'Sister,' and the way — — "