THEIR night came unheralded.
Kennicott was on a country call. It was cool but Carol huddled on the porch, rocking, meditating, rocking. The house was lonely and repellent, and though she sighed, "I ought to go in and read — so many things to read — ought to go in," she remained. Suddenly Erik was coming, turning in, swinging open the screen door, touching her hand.
"Saw your husband driving out of town. Couldn't stand it."
"Well — — You mustn't stay more than five minutes."
"Couldn't stand not seeing you. Every day, towards evening, felt I had to see you — pictured you so clear. I've been good though, staying away, haven't I!"
"And you must go on being good."
"Why must I?"
"We better not stay here on the porch. The Howlands across the street are such window-peepers, and Mrs. Bogart — — "
She did not look at him but she could divine his tremulousness as he stumbled indoors. A moment ago the night had been coldly empty; now it was incalculable, hot, treacherous. But it is women who are the calm realists once they discard the fetishes of the premarital hunt. Carol was serene as she murmured, "Hungry? I have some little honey-colored cakes. You may have two, and then you must skip home."
"Take me up and let me see Hugh asleep."
"I don't believe — — "
"Just a glimpse!"
"Well — — "
She doubtfully led the way to the hallroom-nursery. Their heads close, Erik's curls pleasant as they touched her cheek, they looked in at the baby. Hugh was pink with slumber. He had burrowed into his pillow with such energy that it was almost smothering him. Beside it was a celluloid rhinoceros; tight in his hand a torn picture of Old King Cole.
"Shhh!" said Carol, quite automatically. She tiptoed in to pat the pillow. As she returned to Erik she had a friendly sense of his waiting for her. They smiled at each other. She did not think of Kennicott, the baby's father. What she did think was that some one rather like Erik, an older and surer Erik, ought to be Hugh's father. The three of them would play — incredible imaginative games.
"Carol! You've told me about your own room. Let me peep in at it."
"But you mustn't stay, not a second. We must go downstairs."
"Will you be good?"
"R-reasonably!" He was pale, large-eyed, serious.
"You've got to be more than reasonably good!" She felt sensible and superior; she was energetic about pushing open the door.
Kennicott had always seemed out of place there but Erik surprisingly harmonized with the spirit of the room as he stroked the books, glanced at the prints. He held out his hands. He came toward her. She was weak, betrayed to a warm softness. Her head was tilted back. Her eyes were closed. Her thoughts were formless but many-colored. She felt his kiss, diffident and reverent, on her eyelid.
Then she knew that it was impossible.
She shook herself. She sprang from him. "Please!" she said sharply.
He looked at her unyielding.
"I am fond of you," she said. "Don't spoil everything. Be my friend."
"How many thousands and millions of women must have said that! And now you! And it doesn't spoil everything. It glorifies everything."
"Dear, I do think there's a tiny streak of fairy in you — whatever you do with it. Perhaps I'd have loved that once. But I won't. It's too late. But I'll keep a fondness for you. Impersonal — I will be impersonal! It needn't be just a thin talky fondness. You do need me, don't you? Only you and my son need me. I've wanted so to be wanted! Once I wanted love to be given to me. Now I'll be content if I can give. . . . Almost content!
"We women, we like to do things for men. Poor men! We swoop on you when you're defenseless and fuss over you and insist on reforming you. But it's so pitifully deep in us. You'll be the one thing in which I haven't failed. Do something definite! Even if it's just selling cottons. Sell beautiful cottons — caravans from China — — "
"Carol! Stop! You do love me!"
"I do not! It's just — — Can't you understand? Everything crushes in on me so, all the gaping dull people, and I look for a way out — — Please go. I can't stand any more. Please!"
He was gone. And she was not relieved by the quiet of the house. She was empty and the house was empty and she needed him. She wanted to go on talking, to get this threshed out, to build a sane friendship. She wavered down to the living-room, looked out of the bay-window. He was not to be seen. But Mrs. Westlake was. She was walking past, and in the light from the corner arc-lamp she quickly inspected the porch, the windows. Carol dropped the curtain, stood with movement and reflection paralyzed. Automatically, without reasoning, she mumbled, "I will see him again soon and make him understand we must be friends. But — — The house is so empty. It echoes so."
Kennicott had seemed nervous and absent-minded through that supper-hour, two evenings after. He prowled about the living-room, then growled:
"What the dickens have you been saying to Ma Westlake?"
Carol's book rattled. "What do you mean?"
"I told you that Westlake and his wife were jealous of us, and here you been chumming up to them and — — From what Dave tells me, Ma Westlake has been going around town saying you told her that you hate Aunt Bessie, and that you fixed up your own room because I snore, and you said Bjornstam was too good for Bea, and then, just recent, that you were sore on the town because we don't all go down on our knees and beg this Valborg fellow to come take supper with us. God only knows what else she says you said."
"It's not true, any of it! I did like Mrs. Westlake, and I've called on her, and apparently she's gone and twisted everything I've said — — "
"Sure. Of course she would. Didn't I tell you she would? She's an old cat, like her pussyfooting, hand-holding husband. Lord, if I was sick, I'd rather have a faith-healer than Westlake, and she's another slice off the same bacon. What I can't understand though — — "
She waited, taut.
" — — is whatever possessed you to let her pump you, bright a girl as you are. I don't care what you told her — we all get peeved sometimes and want to blow off steam, that's natural — but if you wanted to keep it dark, why didn't you advertise it in the Dauntless, or get a megaphone and stand on top of the hotel and holler, or do anything besides spill it to her!"
"I know. You told me. But she was so motherly. And I didn't have any woman — — Vida 's become so married and proprietary."
"Well, next time you'll have better sense."
He patted her head, flumped down behind his newspaper, said nothing more.
Enemies leered through the windows, stole on her from the hall. She had no one save Erik. This kind good man Kennicott — he was an elder brother. It was Erik, her fellow outcast, to whom she wanted to run for sanctuary. Through her storm she was, to the eye, sitting quietly with her fingers between the pages of a baby-blue book on home-dressmaking. But her dismay at Mrs. Westlake's treachery had risen to active dread. What had the woman said of her and Erik? What did she know? What had she seen? Who else would join in the baying hunt? Who else had seen her with Erik? What had she to fear from the Dyers, Cy Bogart, Juanita, Aunt Bessie? What precisely had she answered to Mrs. Bogart's questioning?
All next day she was too restless to stay home, yet as she walked the streets on fictitious errands she was afraid of every person she met. She waited for them to speak; waited with foreboding. She repeated, "I mustn't ever see Erik again." But the words did not register. She had no ecstatic indulgence in the sense of guilt which is, to the women of Main Street, the surest escape from blank tediousness.
At five, crumpled in a chair in the living-room, she started at the sound of the bell. Some one opened the door. She waited, uneasy. Vida Sherwin charged into the room. "Here's the one person I can trust!" Carol rejoiced.
Vida was serious but affectionate. She bustled at Carol with, "Oh, there you are, dearie, so glad t' find you in, sit down, want to talk to you."
Carol sat, obedient.
Vida fussily tugged over a large chair and launched out:
"I've been hearing vague rumors you were interested in this Erik Valborg. I knew you couldn't be guilty, and I'm surer than ever of it now. Here we are, as blooming as a daisy."
"How does a respectable matron look when she feels guilty?"
Carol sounded resentful.
"Why — — Oh, it would show! Besides! I know that you, of all people, are the one that can appreciate Dr. Will."
"What have you been hearing?"
"Nothing, really. I just heard Mrs. Bogart say she'd seen you and Valborg walking together a lot." Vida's chirping slackened. She looked at her nails. "But — — I suspect you do like Valborg. Oh, I don't mean in any wrong way. But you're young; you don't know what an innocent liking might drift into. You always pretend to be so sophisticated and all, but you're a baby. Just because you are so innocent, you don't know what evil thoughts may lurk in that fellow's brain."