"No, but look here: The little Swiftwaite has a friend with her from Winona, dandy looker and some gay bird, and Harry and me thought maybe you'd like to sneak off for one evening."
"No — no — — "
"Rats now, doc, forget your everlasting dignity. You used to be a pretty good sport yourself, when you were foot-free."
It may have been the fact that Mrs. Swiftwaite's friend remained to Kennicott an ill-told rumor, it may have been Carol's voice, wistful in the pallid evening as she sang to Hugh, it may have been natural and commendable virtue, but certainly he was positive:
"Nope. I'm married for keeps. Don't pretend to be any saint. Like to get out and raise Cain and shoot a few drinks. But a fellow owes a duty — — Straight now, won't you feel like a sneak when you come back to the missus after your jamboree?"
"Me? My moral in life is, 'What they don't know won't hurt 'em none.' The way to handle wives, like the fellow says, is to catch 'em early, treat 'em rough, and tell 'em nothing!"
"Well, that's your business, I suppose. But I can't get away with it. Besides that — way I figure it, this illicit love-making is the one game that you always lose at. If you do lose, you feel foolish; and if you win, as soon as you find out how little it is that you've been scheming for, why then you lose worse than ever. Nature stinging us, as usual. But at that, I guess a lot of wives in this burg would be surprised if they knew everything that goes on behind their backs, eh, Nattie?"
"WOULD they! Say, boy! If the good wives knew what some of the boys get away with when they go down to the Cities, why, they'd throw a fit! Sure you won't come, doc? Think of getting all cooled off by a good long drive, and then the lov-e-ly Swiftwaite's white hand mixing you a good stiff highball!"
"Nope. Nope. Sorry. Guess I won't," grumbled Kennicott.
He was glad that Nat showed signs of going. But he was restless. He heard Carol on the stairs. "Come have a seat — have the whole earth!" he shouted jovially.
She did not answer his joviality. She sat on the porch, rocked silently, then sighed, "So many mosquitos out here. You haven't had the screen fixed."
As though he was testing her he said quietly, "Head aching again?"
"Oh, not much, but — — This maid is SO slow to learn. I have to show her everything. I had to clean most of the silver myself. And Hugh was so bad all afternoon. He whined so. Poor soul, he was hot, but he did wear me out."
"Uh — — You usually want to get out. Like to walk down to the lake shore? (The girl can stay home.) Or go to the movies? Come on, let's go to the movies! Or shall we jump in the car and run out to Sam's, for a swim?"
"If you don't mind, dear, I'm afraid I'm rather tired."
"Why don't you sleep down-stairs tonight, on the couch? Be cooler. I'm going to bring down my mattress. Come on! Keep the old man company. Can't tell — I might get scared of burglars. Lettin' little fellow like me stay all alone by himself!"
"It's sweet of you to think of it, but I like my own room so much. But you go ahead and do it, dear. Why don't you sleep on the couch, instead of putting your mattress on the floor? Well I believe I'll run in and read for just a second — want to look at the last Vogue — and then perhaps I'll go by-by. Unless you want me, dear? Of course if there's anything you really WANT me for?"
"No. No. . . . Matter of fact, I really ought to run down and see Mrs. Champ Perry. She's ailing. So you skip in and — — May drop in at the drug store. If I'm not home when you get sleepy, don't wait up for me."
He kissed her, rambled off, nodded to Jim Howland, stopped indifferently to speak to Mrs. Terry Gould. But his heart was racing, his stomach was constricted. He walked more slowly. He reached Dave Dyer's yard. He glanced in. On the porch, sheltered by a wild-grape vine, was the figure of a woman in white. He heard the swing-couch creak as she sat up abruptly, peered, then leaned back and pretended to relax.
"Be nice to have some cool beer. Just drop in for a second," he insisted, as he opened the Dyer gate.
Mrs. Bogart was calling upon Carol, protected by Aunt Bessie Smail.
"Have you heard about this awful woman that's supposed to have come here to do dressmaking — a Mrs. Swiftwaite — awful peroxide blonde?" moaned Mrs. Bogart. "They say there's some of the awfullest goings-on at her house — mere boys and old gray-headed rips sneaking in there evenings and drinking licker and every kind of goings-on. We women can't never realize the carnal thoughts in the hearts of men. I tell you, even though I been acquainted with Will Kennicott almost since he was a mere boy, seems like, I wouldn't trust even him! Who knows what designin' women might tempt him! Especially a doctor, with women rushin' in to see him at his office and all! You know I never hint around, but haven't you felt that — — "
Carol was furious. "I don't pretend that Will has no faults. But one thing I do know: He's as simple-hearted about what you call 'goings-on' as a babe. And if he ever were such a sad dog as to look at another woman, I certainly hope he'd have spirit enough to do the tempting, and not be coaxed into it, as in your depressing picture!"
"Why, what a wicked thing to say, Carrie!" from Aunt Bessie.
"No, I mean it! Oh, of course, I don't mean it! But — — I know every thought in his head so well that he couldn't hide anything even if he wanted to. Now this morning — — He was out late, last night; he had to go see Mrs. Perry, who is ailing, and then fix a man's hand, and this morning he was so quiet and thoughtful at breakfast and — — " She leaned forward, breathed dramatically to the two perched harpies, "What do you suppose he was thinking of?"
"What?" trembled Mrs. Bogart.
"Whether the grass needs cutting, probably! There, there! Don't mind my naughtiness. I have some fresh-made raisin cookies for you."