"Why, you're the youngest — — Your eyes are like a girl's. They're so — well, I mean, like you believed everything. Even if you do teach me, I feel a thousand years older than you, instead of maybe a year younger."
"Four or five years younger!"
"Anyway, your eyes are so innocent and your cheeks so soft — — Damn it, it makes me want to cry, somehow, you're so defenseless; and I want to protect you and — — There's nothing to protect you against!"
"Am I young? Am I? Honestly? Truly?" She betrayed for a moment the childish, mock-imploring tone that comes into the voice of the most serious woman when an agreeable man treats her as a girl; the childish tone and childish pursed-up lips and shy lift of the cheek.
"Yes, you are!"
"You're dear to believe it, Will — ERIK!"
"Will you play with me? A lot?"
"Would you really like to curl in the leaves and watch the stars swing by overhead?"
"I think it's rather better to be sitting here!" He twined his fingers with hers. "And Erik, we must go back."
"It's somewhat late to outline all the history of social custom!"
"I know. We must. Are you glad we ran away though?"
"Yes." She was quiet, perfectly simple. But she rose.
He circled her waist with a brusque arm. She did not resist. She did not care. He was neither a peasant tailor, a potential artist, a social complication, nor a peril. He was himself, and in him, in the personality flowing from him, she was unreasoningly content. In his nearness she caught a new view of his head; the last light brought out the planes of his neck, his flat ruddied cheeks, the side of his nose, the depression of his temples. Not as coy or uneasy lovers but as companions they walked to the boat, and he lifted her up on the prow.
She began to talk intently, as he rowed: "Erik, you've got to work! You ought to be a personage. You're robbed of your kingdom. Fight for it! Take one of these correspondence courses in drawing — they mayn't be any good in themselves, but they'll make you try to draw and — — "
As they reached the picnic ground she perceived that it was dark, that they had been gone for a long time.
"What will they say?" she wondered.
The others greeted them with the inevitable storm of humor and slight vexation: "Where the deuce do you think you've been?" "You're a fine pair, you are!" Erik and Carol looked self-conscious; failed in their effort to be witty. All the way home Carol was embarrassed. Once Cy winked at her. That Cy, the Peeping Tom of the garage-loft, should consider her a fellow-sinner — — She was furious and frightened and exultant by turns, and in all her moods certain that Kennicott would read her adventuring in her face.
She came into the house awkwardly defiant.
Her husband, half asleep under the lamp, greeted her, "Well, well, have nice time?"
She could not answer. He looked at her. But his look did not sharpen. He began to wind his watch, yawning the old "Welllllll, guess it's about time to turn in."
That was all. Yet she was not glad. She was almost disappointed.
Mrs. Bogart called next day. She had a hen-like, crumb-pecking, diligent appearance. Her smile was too innocent. The pecking started instantly:
"Cy says you had lots of fun at the picnic yesterday. Did you enjoy it?"
"Oh yes. I raced Cy at swimming. He beat me badly. He's so strong, isn't he!"
"Poor boy, just crazy to get into the war, too, but — — This Erik Valborg was along, wa'n't he?"
"I think he's an awful handsome fellow, and they say he's smart. Do you like him?"
"He seems very polite."
"Cy says you and him had a lovely boat-ride. My, that must have been pleasant."
"Yes, except that I couldn't get Mr. Valborg to say a word. I wanted to ask him about the suit Mr. Hicks is making for my husband. But he insisted on singing. Still, it was restful, floating around on the water and singing. So happy and innocent. Don't you think it's a shame, Mrs. Bogart, that people in this town don't do more nice clean things like that, instead of all this horrible gossiping?"
"Yes. . . . Yes."
Mrs. Bogart sounded vacant. Her bonnet was awry; she was incomparably dowdy. Carol stared at her, felt contemptuous, ready at last to rebel against the trap, and as the rusty goodwife fished again, "Plannin' some more picnics?" she flung out, "I haven't the slightest idea! Oh. Is that Hugh crying? I must run up to him."
But up-stairs she remembered that Mrs. Bogart had seen her walking with Erik from the railroad track into town, and she was chilly with disquietude.
At the Jolly Seventeen, two days after, she was effusive to Maud Dyer, to Juanita Haydock. She fancied that every one was watching her, but she could not be sure, and in rare strong moments she did not care. She could rebel against the town's prying now that she had something, however indistinct, for which to rebel.
In a passionate escape there must be not only a place from which to flee but a place to which to flee. She had known that she would gladly leave Gopher Prairie, leave Main Street and all that it signified, but she had had no destination. She had one now. That destination was not Erik Valborg and the love of Erik. She continued to assure herself that she wasn't in love with him but merely "fond of him, and interested in his success." Yet in him she had discovered both her need of youth and the fact that youth would welcome her. It was not Erik to whom she must escape, but universal and joyous youth, in class-rooms, in studios, in offices, in meetings to protest against Things in General. . . . But universal and joyous youth rather resembled Erik.
All week she thought of things she wished to say to him. High, improving things. She began to admit that she was lonely without him. Then she was afraid.
It was at the Baptist church supper, a week after the picnic, that she saw him again. She had gone with Kennicott and Aunt Bessie to the supper, which was spread on oilcloth-covered and trestle-supported tables in the church basement. Erik was helping Myrtle Cass to fill coffee cups for the wait-resses. The congregation had doffed their piety. Children tumbled under the tables, and Deacon Pierson greeted the women with a rolling, "Where's Brother Jones, sister, where's Brother Jones? Not going to be with us tonight? Well, you tell Sister Perry to hand you a plate, and make 'em give you enough oyster pie!"
Erik shared in the cheerfulness. He laughed with Myrtle, jogged her elbow when she was filling cups, made deep mock bows to the waitresses as they came up for coffee. Myrtle was enchanted by his humor. From the other end of the room, a matron among matrons, Carol observed Myrtle, and hated her, and caught herself at it. "To be jealous of a wooden-faced village girl!" But she kept it up. She detested Erik; gloated over his gaucheries — his "breaks," she called them. When he was too expressive, too much like a Russian dancer, in saluting Deacon Pierson, Carol had the ecstasy of pain in seeing the deacon's sneer. When, trying to talk to three girls at once, he dropped a cup and effeminately wailed, "Oh dear!" she sympathized with — and ached over — the insulting secret glances of the girls.
From meanly hating him she rose to compassion as she saw that his eyes begged every one to like him. She perceived how inaccurate her judgments could be. At the picnic she had fancied that Maud Dyer looked upon Erik too sentimentally, and she had snarled, "I hate these married women who cheapen themselves and feed on boys." But at the supper Maud was one of the waitresses; she bustled with platters of cake, she was pleasant to old women; and to Erik she gave no attention at all. Indeed, when she had her own supper, she joined the Kennicotts, and how ludicrous it was to suppose that Maud was a gourmet of emotions Carol saw in the fact that she talked not to one of the town beaux but to the safe Kennicott himself!