"You don't suppose Valborg could actually think about making love to me?"
Her rather cheap sport ended abruptly as Vida cried, with contorted face, "What do you know about the thoughts in hearts? You just play at reforming the world. You don't know what it means to suffer."
There are two insults which no human being will endure: the assertion that he hasn't a sense of humor, and the doubly impertinent assertion that he has never known trouble. Carol said furiously, "You think I don't suffer? You think I've always had an easy — — "
"No, you don't. I'm going to tell you something I've never told a living soul, not even Ray." The dam of repressed imagination which Vida had builded for years, which now, with Raymie off at the wars, she was building again, gave way.
"I was — I liked Will terribly well. One time at a party — oh, before he met you, of course — but we held hands, and we were so happy. But I didn't feel I was really suited to him. I let him go. Please don't think I still love him! I see now that Ray was predestined to be my mate. But because I liked him, I know how sincere and pure and noble Will is, and his thoughts never straying from the path of rectitude, and — — If I gave him up to you, at least you've got to appreciate him! We danced together and laughed so, and I gave him up, but — — This IS my affair! I'm NOT intruding! I see the whole thing as he does, because of all I've told you. Maybe it's shameless to bare my heart this way, but I do it for him — for him and you!"
Carol understood that Vida believed herself to have recited minutely and brazenly a story of intimate love; understood that, in alarm, she was trying to cover her shame as she struggled on, "Liked him in the most honorable way — simply can't help it if I still see things through his eyes — — If I gave him up, I certainly am not beyond my rights in demanding that you take care to avoid even the appearance of evil and — — " She was weeping; an insignificant, flushed, ungracefully weeping woman.
Carol could not endure it. She ran to Vida, kissed her forehead, comforted her with a murmur of dove-like sounds, sought to reassure her with worn and hastily assembled gifts of words: "Oh, I appreciate it so much," and "You are so fine and splendid," and "Let me assure you there isn't a thing to what you've heard," and "Oh, indeed, I do know how sincere Will is, and as you say, so — so sincere."
Vida believed that she had explained many deep and devious matters. She came out of her hysteria like a sparrow shaking off rain-drops. She sat up, and took advantage of her victory:
"I don't want to rub it in, but you can see for yourself now, this is all a result of your being so discontented and not appreciating the dear good people here. And another thing: People like you and me, who want to reform things, have to be particularly careful about appearances. Think how much better you can criticize conventional customs if you yourself live up to them, scrupulously. Then people can't say you're attacking them to excuse your own infractions."
To Carol was given a sudden great philosophical understanding, an explanation of half the cautious reforms in history. "Yes. I've heard that plea. It's a good one. It sets revolts aside to cool. It keeps strays in the flock. To word it differently: 'You must live up to the popular code if you believe in it; but if you don't believe in it, then you MUST live up to it!'"
"I don't think so at all," said Vida vaguely. She began to look hurt, and Carol let her be oracular.
Vida had done her a service; had made all agonizing seem so fatuous that she ceased writhing and saw that her whole problem was simple as mutton: she was interested in Erik's aspiration; interest gave her a hesitating fondness for him; and the future would take care of the event. . . . But at night, thinking in bed, she protested, "I'm not a falsely accused innocent, though! If it were some one more resolute than Erik, a fighter, an artist with bearded surly lips — — They're only in books. Is that the real tragedy, that I never shall know tragedy, never find anything but blustery complications that turn out to be a farce?
"No one big enough or pitiful enough to sacrifice for. Tragedy in neat blouses; the eternal flame all nice and safe in a kerosene stove. Neither heroic faith nor heroic guilt. Peeping at love from behind lace curtains — on Main Street!"
Aunt Bessie crept in next day, tried to pump her, tried to prime the pump by again hinting that Kennicott might have his own affairs. Carol snapped, "Whatever I may do, I'll have you to understand that Will is only too safe!" She wished afterward that she had not been so lofty. How much would Aunt Bessie make of "Whatever I may do?"
When Kennicott came home he poked at things, and hemmed, and brought out, "Saw aunty, this afternoon. She said you weren't very polite to her."
Carol laughed. He looked at her in a puzzled way and fled to his newspaper.
She lay sleepless. She alternately considered ways of leaving Kennicott, and remembered his virtues, pitied his bewilderment in face of the subtle corroding sicknesses which he could not dose nor cut out. Didn't he perhaps need her more than did the book-solaced Erik? Suppose Will were to die, suddenly. Suppose she never again saw him at breakfast, silent but amiable, listening to her chatter. Suppose he never again played elephant for Hugh. Suppose — — A country call, a slippery road, his motor skidding, the edge of the road crumbling, the car turning turtle, Will pinned beneath, suffering, brought home maimed, looking at her with spaniel eyes — or waiting for her, calling for her, while she was in Chicago, knowing nothing of it. Suppose he were sued by some vicious shrieking woman for malpractice. He tried to get witnesses; Westlake spread lies; his friends doubted him; his self-confidence was so broken that it was horrible to see the indecision of the decisive man; he was convicted, handcuffed, taken on a train — —
She ran to his room. At her nervous push the door swung sharply in, struck a chair. He awoke, gasped, then in a steady voice: "What is it, dear? Anything wrong?" She darted to him, fumbled for the familiar harsh bristly cheek. How well she knew it, every seam, and hardness of bone, and roll of fat! Yet when he sighed, "This is a nice visit," and dropped his hand on her thin-covered shoulder, she said, too cheerily, "I thought I heard you moaning. So silly of me. Good night, dear."
She did not see Erik for a fortnight, save once at church and once when she went to the tailor shop to talk over the plans, contingencies, and strategy of Kennicott's annual campaign for getting a new suit. Nat Hicks was there, and he was not so deferential as he had been. With unnecessary jauntiness he chuckled, "Some nice flannels, them samples, heh?" Needlessly he touched her arm to call attention to the fashion-plates, and humorously he glanced from her to Erik. At home she wondered if the little beast might not be suggesting himself as a rival to Erik, but that abysmal bedragglement she would not consider.
She saw Juanita Haydock slowly walking past the house — as Mrs. Westlake had once walked past.
She met Mrs. Westlake in Uncle Whittier's store, and before that alert stare forgot her determination to be rude, and was shakily cordial.
She was sure that all the men on the street, even Guy Pollock and Sam Clark, leered at her in an interested hopeful way, as though she were a notorious divorcee. She felt as insecure as a shadowed criminal. She wished to see Erik, and wished that she had never seen him. She fancied that Kennicott was the only person in town who did not know all — know incomparably more than there was to know — about herself and Erik. She crouched in her chair as she imagined men talking of her, thick-voiced, obscene, in barber shops and the tobacco-stinking pool parlor.
Through early autumn Fern Mullins was the only person who broke the suspense. The frivolous teacher had come to accept Carol as of her own youth, and though school had begun she rushed in daily to suggest dances, welsh-rabbit parties.
Fern begged her to go as chaperon to a barn-dance in the country, on a Saturday evening. Carol could not go. The next day, the storm crashed.