At mid-morning, when she was momentarily free from the ache in her neck and back, she was glad of the reality of work. The hours were living and nimble. But she had no desire to read the eloquent little newspaper essays in praise of labor which are daily written by the white-browed journalistic prophets. She felt independent and (though she hid it) a bit surly.
In cleaning the house she pondered upon the maid's-room. It was a slant-roofed, small-windowed hole above the kitchen, oppressive in summer, frigid in winter. She saw that while she had been considering herself an unusually good mistress, she had been permitting her friends Bea and Oscarina to live in a sty. She complained to Kennicott. "What's the matter with it?" he growled, as they stood on the perilous stairs dodging up from the kitchen. She commented upon the sloping roof of unplastered boards stained in brown rings by the rain, the uneven floor, the cot and its tumbled discouraged-looking quilts, the broken rocker, the distorting mirror.
"Maybe it ain't any Hotel Radisson parlor, but still, it's so much better than anything these hired girls are accustomed to at home that they think it's fine. Seems foolish to spend money when they wouldn't appreciate it."
But that night he drawled, with the casualness of a man who wishes to be surprising and delightful, "Carrie, don't know but what we might begin to think about building a new house, one of these days. How'd you like that?"
"W-why — — "
"I'm getting to the point now where I feel we can afford one — and a corker! I'll show this burg something like a real house! We'll put one over on Sam and Harry! Make folks sit up an' take notice!"
"Yes," she said.
He did not go on.
Daily he returned to the subject of the new house, but as to time and mode he was indefinite. At first she believed. She babbled of a low stone house with lattice windows and tulip-beds, of colonial brick, of a white frame cottage with green shutters and dormer windows. To her enthusiasms he answered, "Well, ye-es, might be worth thinking about. Remember where I put my pipe?" When she pressed him he fidgeted, "I don't know; seems to me those kind of houses you speak of have been overdone."
It proved that what he wanted was a house exactly like Sam Clark's, which was exactly like every third new house in every town in the country: a square, yellow stolidity with immaculate clapboards, a broad screened porch, tidy grass-plots, and concrete walks; a house resembling the mind of a merchant who votes the party ticket straight and goes to church once a month and owns a good car.
He admitted, "Well, yes, maybe it isn't so darn artistic but — — Matter of fact, though, I don't want a place just like Sam's. Maybe I would cut off that fool tower he's got, and I think probably it would look better painted a nice cream color. That yellow on Sam's house is too kind of flashy. Then there's another kind of house that's mighty nice and substantial-looking, with shingles, in a nice brown stain, instead of clapboards — seen some in Minneapolis. You're way off your base when you say I only like one kind of house!"
Uncle Whittier and Aunt Bessie came in one evening when Carol was sleepily advocating a rose-garden cottage.
"You've had a lot of experience with housekeeping, aunty, and don't you think," Kennicott appealed, "that it would be sensible to have a nice square house, and pay more attention to getting a crackajack furnace than to all this architecture and doodads?"
Aunt Bessie worked her lips as though they were an elastic band. "Why of course! I know how it is with young folks like you, Carrie; you want towers and bay-windows and pianos and heaven knows what all, but the thing to get is closets and a good furnace and a handy place to hang out the washing, and the rest don't matter."
Uncle Whittier dribbled a little, put his face near to Carol's, and sputtered, "Course it don't! What d'you care what folks think about the outside of your house? It's the inside you're living in. None of my business, but I must say you young folks that'd rather have cakes than potatoes get me riled."
She reached her room before she became savage. Below, dreadfully near, she could hear the broom-swish of Aunt Bessie's voice, and the mop-pounding of Uncle Whittier's grumble. She had a reasonless dread that they would intrude on her, then a fear that she would yield to Gopher Prairie's conception of duty toward an Aunt Bessie and go down-stairs to be "nice." She felt the demand for standardized behavior coming in waves from all the citizens who sat in their sitting-rooms watching her with respectable eyes, waiting, demanding, unyielding. She snarled, "Oh, all right, I'll go!" She powdered her nose, straightened her collar, and coldly marched down-stairs. The three elders ignored her. They had advanced from the new house to agreeable general fussing. Aunt Bessie was saying, in a tone like the munching of dry toast:
"I do think Mr. Stowbody ought to have had the rain-pipe fixed at our store right away. I went to see him on Tuesday morning before ten, no, it was couple minutes after ten, but anyway, it was long before noon — I know because I went right from the bank to the meat market to get some steak — my! I think it's outrageous, the prices Oleson & McGuire charge for their meat, and it isn't as if they gave you a good cut either but just any old thing, and I had time to get it, and I stopped in at Mrs. Bogart's to ask about her rheumatism — — "
Carol was watching Uncle Whittier. She knew from his taut expression that he was not listening to Aunt Bessie but herding his own thoughts, and that he would interrupt her bluntly. He did:
"Will, where c'n I get an extra pair of pants for this coat and vest? D' want to pay too much."
"Well, guess Nat Hicks could make you up a pair. But if I were you, I'd drop into Ike Rifkin's — his prices are lower than the Bon Ton's."
"Humph. Got the new stove in your office yet?"
"No, been looking at some at Sam Clark's but — — "
"Well, y' ought get 't in. Don't do to put off getting a stove all summer, and then have it come cold on you in the fall."
Carol smiled upon them ingratiatingly. "Do you dears mind if I slip up to bed? I'm rather tired — cleaned the upstairs today."
She retreated. She was certain that they were discussing her, and foully forgiving her. She lay awake till she heard the distant creak of a bed which indicated that Kennicott had retired. Then she felt safe.
It was Kennicott who brought up the matter of the Smails at breakfast. With no visible connection he said, "Uncle Whit is kind of clumsy, but just the same, he's a pretty wise old coot. He's certainly making good with the store."
Carol smiled, and Kennicott was pleased that she had come to her senses. "As Whit says, after all the first thing is to have the inside of a house right, and darn the people on the outside looking in!"
It seemed settled that the house was to be a sound example of the Sam Clark school.
Kennicott made much of erecting it entirely for her and the baby. He spoke of closets for her frocks, and "a comfy sewing-room." But when he drew on a leaf from an old account-book (he was a paper-saver and a string-picker) the plans for the garage, he gave much more attention to a cement floor and a work-bench and a gasoline-tank than he had to sewing-rooms.
She sat back and was afraid.
In the present rookery there were odd things — a step up from the hall to the dining-room, a picturesqueness in the shed and bedraggled lilac bush. But the new place would be smooth, standardized, fixed. It was probable, now that Kennicott was past forty, and settled, that this would be the last venture he would ever make in building. So long as she stayed in this ark, she would always have a possibility of change, but once she was in the new house, there she would sit for all the rest of her life — there she would die. Desperately she wanted to put it off, against the chance of miracles. While Kennicott was chattering about a patent swing-door for the garage she saw the swing-doors of a prison.
She never voluntarily returned to the project. Aggrieved, Kennicott stopped drawing plans, and in ten days the new house was forgotten.
Every year since their marriage Carol had longed for a trip through the East. Every year Kennicott had talked of attending the American Medical Association convention, "and then afterwards we could do the East up brown. I know New York clean through — spent pretty near a week there — but I would like to see New England and all these historic places and have some sea-food." He talked of it from February to May, and in May he invariably decided that coming confinement-cases or land-deals would prevent his "getting away from home-base for very long THIS year — and no sense going till we can do it right."