"But, Will, he'd never give it to me on my say-so. He'd never let me go away. You know how Dave is: so jolly and liberal in society, and oh, just LOVES to match quarters, and such a perfect sport if he loses! But at home he pinches a nickel till the buffalo drips blood. I have to nag him for every single dollar."
"Sure, I know, but it's your fight, honey. Keep after him. He'd simply resent my butting in."
He crossed over and patted her shoulder. Outside the window, beyond the fly-screen that was opaque with dust and cottonwood lint, Main Street was hushed except for the impatient throb of a standing motor car. She took his firm hand, pressed his knuckles against her cheek.
"O Will, Dave is so mean and little and noisy — the shrimp! You're so calm. When he's cutting up at parties I see you standing back and watching him — the way a mastiff watches a terrier."
He fought for professional dignity with, "Dave 's not a bad fellow."
Lingeringly she released his hand. "Will, drop round by the house this evening and scold me. Make me be good and sensible. And I'm so lonely."
"If I did, Dave would be there, and we'd have to play cards. It's his evening off from the store."
"No. The clerk just got called to Corinth — mother sick. Dave will be in the store till midnight. Oh, come on over. There's some lovely beer on the ice, and we can sit and talk and be all cool and lazy. That wouldn't be wrong of us, WOULD it!"
"No, no, course it wouldn't be wrong. But still, oughtn't to — — " He saw Carol, slim black and ivory, cool, scornful of intrigue.
"All right. But I'll be so lonely."
Her throat seemed young, above her loose blouse of muslin and machine-lace.
"Tell you, Maud: I'll drop in just for a minute, if I happen to be called down that way."
"If you'd like," demurely. "O Will, I just want comfort. I know you're all married, and my, such a proud papa, and of course now — — If I could just sit near you in the dusk, and be quiet, and forget Dave! You WILL come?"
"Sure I will!"
"I'll expect you. I'll be lonely if you don't come! Good-by."
He cursed himself: "Darned fool, what 'd I promise to go for? I'll have to keep my promise, or she'll feel hurt. She's a good, decent, affectionate girl, and Dave's a cheap skate, all right. She's got more life to her than Carol has. All my fault, anyway. Why can't I be more cagey, like Calibree and McGanum and the rest of the doctors? Oh, I am, but Maud's such a demanding idiot. Deliberately bamboozling me into going up there tonight. Matter of principle: ought not to let her get away with it. I won't go. I'll call her up and tell her I won't go. Me, with Carrie at home, finest little woman in the world, and a messy-minded female like Maud Dyer — no, SIR! Though there's no need of hurting her feelings. I may just drop in for a second, to tell her I can't stay. All my fault anyway; ought never to have started in and jollied Maud along in the old days. If it's my fault, I've got no right to punish Maud. I could just drop in for a second and then pretend I had a country call and beat it. Damn nuisance, though, having to fake up excuses. Lord, why can't the women let you alone? Just because once or twice, seven hundred million years ago, you were a poor fool, why can't they let you forget it? Maud's own fault. I'll stay strictly away. Take Carrie to the movies, and forget Maud. . . . But it would be kind of hot at the movies tonight."
He fled from himself. He rammed on his hat, threw his coat over his arm, banged the door, locked it, tramped downstairs. "I won't go!" he said sturdily and, as he said it, he would have given a good deal to know whether he was going.
He was refreshed, as always, by the familiar windows and faces. It restored his soul to have Sam Clark trustingly bellow, "Better come down to the lake this evening and have a swim, doc. Ain't you going to open your cottage at all, this summer? By golly, we miss you." He noted the progress on the new garage. He had triumphed in the laying of every course of bricks; in them he had seen the growth of the town. His pride was ushered back to its throne by the respectfulness of Oley Sundquist: "Evenin', doc! The woman is a lot better. That was swell medicine you gave her." He was calmed by the mechanicalness of the tasks at home: burning the gray web of a tent-worm on the wild cherry tree, sealing with gum a cut in the right front tire of the car, sprinkling the road before the house. The hose was cool to his hands. As the bright arrows fell with a faint puttering sound, a crescent of blackness was formed in the gray dust.
Dave Dyer came along.
"Where going, Dave?"
"Down to the store. Just had supper."
"But Thursday 's your night off."
"Sure, but Pete went home. His mother 's supposed to be sick. Gosh, these clerks you get nowadays — overpay 'em and then they won't work!"
"That's tough, Dave. You'll have to work clear up till twelve, then."
"Yup. Better drop in and have a cigar, if you're downtown.
"Well, I may, at that. May have to go down and see Mrs. Champ Perry. She's ailing. So long, Dave."
Kennicott had not yet entered the house. He was conscious that Carol was near him, that she was important, that he was afraid of her disapproval; but he was content to be alone. When he had finished sprinkling he strolled into the house, up to the baby's room, and cried to Hugh, "Story-time for the old man, eh?"
Carol was in a low chair, framed and haloed by the window behind her, an image in pale gold. The baby curled in her lap, his head on her arm, listening with gravity while she sang from Gene Field:
'Tis little Luddy-Dud in the morning —
'Tis little Luddy-Dud at night:
And all day long
'Tis the same dear song
Of that growing, crowing, knowing little sprite.
Kennicott was enchanted.
"Maud Dyer? I should say not!"
When the current maid bawled up-stairs, "Supper on de table!" Kennicott was upon his back, flapping his hands in the earnest effort to be a seal, thrilled by the strength with which his son kicked him. He slipped his arm about Carol's shoulder; he went down to supper rejoicing that he was cleansed of perilous stuff. While Carol was putting the baby to bed he sat on the front steps. Nat Hicks, tailor and roue, came to sit beside him. Between waves of his hand as he drove off mosquitos, Nat whispered, "Say, doc, you don't feel like imagining you're a bacheldore again, and coming out for a Time tonight, do you?"
"You know this new dressmaker, Mrs. Swiftwaite? — swell dame with blondine hair? Well, she's a pretty good goer. Me and Harry Haydock are going to take her and that fat wren that works in the Bon Ton — nice kid, too — on an auto ride tonight. Maybe we'll drive down to that farm Harry bought. We're taking some beer, and some of the smoothest rye you ever laid tongue to. I'm not predicting none, but if we don't have a picnic, I'll miss my guess."
"Go to it. No skin off my ear, Nat. Think I want to be fifth wheel in the coach?"