Never before had her boy been drunk, shrieked Mrs. Bogart. When Kennicott grunted, she owned, "Well, maybe once or twice I've smelled licker on his breath." She also, with an air of being only too scrupulously exact, granted that sometimes he did not come home till morning. But he couldn't ever have been drunk, for he always had the best excuses: the other boys had tempted him to go down the lake spearing pickerel by torchlight, or he had been out in a "machine that ran out of gas." Anyway, never before had her boy fallen into the hands of a "designing woman."
"What do you suppose Miss Mullins could design to do with him?" insisted Carol.
Mrs. Bogart was puzzled, gave it up, went on. This morning, when she had faced both of them, Cy had manfully confessed that all of the blame was on Fern, because the teacher — his own teacher — had dared him to take a drink. Fern had tried to deny it.
"Then," gabbled Mrs. Bogart, "then that woman had the impudence to say to me, 'What purpose could I have in wanting the filthy pup to get drunk?' That's just what she called him — pup. 'I'll have no such nasty language in my house,' I says, 'and you pretending and pulling the wool over people's eyes and making them think you're educated and fit to be a teacher and look out for young people's morals — you're worse 'n any street-walker!' I says. I let her have it good. I wa'n't going to flinch from my bounden duty and let her think that decent folks had to stand for her vile talk. 'Purpose?' I says, 'Purpose? I'll tell you what purpose you had! Ain't I seen you making up to everything in pants that'd waste time and pay attention to your impert'nence? Ain't I seen you showing off your legs with them short skirts of yours, trying to make out like you was so girlish and la-de-da, running along the street?'"
Carol was very sick at this version of Fern's eager youth, but she was sicker as Mrs. Bogart hinted that no one could tell what had happened between Fern and Cy before the drive home. Without exactly describing the scene, by her power of lustful imagination the woman suggested dark country places apart from the lanterns and rude fiddling and banging dance-steps in the barn, then madness and harsh hateful conquest. Carol was too sick to interrupt. It was Kennicott who cried, "Oh, for God's sake quit it! You haven't any idea what happened. You haven't given us a single proof yet that Fern is anything but a rattle-brained youngster."
"I haven't, eh? Well, what do you say to this? I come straight out and I says to her, 'Did you or did you not taste the whisky Cy had?' and she says, 'I think I did take one sip — Cy made me,' she said. She owned up to that much, so you can imagine — — "
"Does that prove her a prostitute?" asked Carol.
"Carrie! Don't you never use a word like that again!" wailed the outraged Puritan.
"Well, does it prove her to be a bad woman, that she took a taste of whisky? I've done it myself!"
"That's different. Not that I approve your doing it. What do the Scriptures tell us? 'Strong drink is a mocker'! But that's entirely different from a teacher drinking with one of her own pupils."
"Yes, it does sound bad. Fern was silly, undoubtedly. But as a matter of fact she's only a year or two older than Cy and probably a good many years younger in experience of vice."
"That's — not — true! She is plenty old enough to corrupt him!
"The job of corrupting Cy was done by your sinless town, five years ago!"
Mrs. Bogart did not rage in return. Suddenly she was hopeless. Her head drooped. She patted her black kid gloves, picked at a thread of her faded brown skirt, and sighed, "He's a good boy, and awful affectionate if you treat him right. Some thinks he's terrible wild, but that's because he's young. And he's so brave and truthful — why, he was one of the first in town that wanted to enlist for the war, and I had to speak real sharp to him to keep him from running away. I didn't want him to get into no bad influences round these camps — and then," Mrs. Bogart rose from her pitifulness, recovered her pace, "then I go and bring into my own house a woman that's worse, when all's said and done, than any bad woman he could have met. You say this Mullins woman is too young and inexperienced to corrupt Cy. Well then, she's too young and inexperienced to teach him, too, one or t'other, you can't have your cake and eat it! So it don't make no difference which reason they fire her for, and that's practically almost what I said to the school-board."
"Have you been telling this story to the members of the school-board?"
"I certainly have! Every one of 'em! And their wives I says to them, ''Tain't my affair to decide what you should or should not do with your teachers,' I says, 'and I ain't presuming to dictate in any way, shape, manner, or form. I just want to know,' I says, 'whether you're going to go on record as keeping here in our schools, among a lot of innocent boys and girls, a woman that drinks, smokes, curses, uses bad language, and does such dreadful things as I wouldn't lay tongue to but you know what I mean,' I says, 'and if so, I'll just see to it that the town learns about it.' And that's what I told Professor Mott, too, being superintendent — and he's a righteous man, not going autoing on the Sabbath like the school-board members. And the professor as much as admitted he was suspicious of the Mullins woman himself."
Kennicott was less shocked and much less frightened than Carol, and more articulate in his description of Mrs. Bogart, when she had gone.
Maud Dyer telephoned to Carol and, after a rather improbable question about cooking lima beans with bacon, demanded, "Have you heard the scandal about this Miss Mullins and Cy Bogart?"
"I'm sure it's a lie."
"Oh, probably is." Maud's manner indicated that the falsity of the story was an insignificant flaw in its general delightfulness.
Carol crept to her room, sat with hands curled tight together as she listened to a plague of voices. She could hear the town yelping with it, every soul of them, gleeful at new details, panting to win importance by having details of their own to add. How well they would make up for what they had been afraid to do by imagining it in another! They who had not been entirely afraid (but merely careful and sneaky), all the barber-shop roues and millinery-parlor mondaines, how archly they were giggling (this second — she could hear them at it); with what self-commendation they were cackling their suavest wit: "You can't tell ME she ain't a gay bird; I'm wise!"
And not one man in town to carry out their pioneer tradition of superb and contemptuous cursing, not one to verify the myth that their "rough chivalry" and "rugged virtues" were more generous than the petty scandal-picking of older lands, not one dramatic frontiersman to thunder, with fantastic and fictional oaths, "What are you hinting at? What are you snickering at? What facts have you? What are these unheard-of sins you condemn so much — and like so well?"
No one to say it. Not Kennicott nor Guy Pollock nor Champ Perry.
Erik? Possibly. He would sputter uneasy protest.
She suddenly wondered what subterranean connection her interest in Erik had with this affair. Wasn't it because they had been prevented by her caste from bounding on her own trail that they were howling at Fern?
Before supper she found, by half a dozen telephone calls, that Fern had fled to the Minniemashie House. She hastened there, trying not to be self-conscious about the people who looked at her on the street. The clerk said indifferently that he "guessed" Miss Mullins was up in Room 37, and left Carol to find the way. She hunted along the stale-smelling corridors with their wallpaper of cerise daisies and poison-green rosettes, streaked in white spots from spilled water, their frayed red and yellow matting, and rows of pine doors painted a sickly blue. She could not find the number. In the darkness at the end of a corridor she had to feel the aluminum figures on the door-panels. She was startled once by a man's voice: "Yep? Whadyuh want?" and fled. When she reached the right door she stood listening. She made out a long sobbing. There was no answer till her third knock; then an alarmed "Who is it? Go away!"
Her hatred of the town turned resolute as she pushed open the door.
Yesterday she had seen Fern Mullins in boots and tweed skirt and canary-yellow sweater, fleet and self-possessed. Now she lay across the bed, in crumpled lavender cotton and shabby pumps, very feminine, utterly cowed. She lifted her head in stupid terror. Her hair was in tousled strings and her face was sallow, creased. Her eyes were a blur from weeping.
"I didn't! I didn't!" was all she would say at first, and she repeated it while Carol kissed her cheek, stroked her hair, bathed her forehead. She rested then, while Carol looked about the room — the welcome to strangers, the sanctuary of hospitable Main Street, the lucrative property of Kennicott's friend, Jackson Elder. It smelled of old linen and decaying carpet and ancient tobacco smoke. The bed was rickety, with a thin knotty mattress; the sand-colored walls were scratched and gouged; in every corner, under everything, were fluffy dust and cigar ashes; on the tilted wash-stand was a nicked and squatty pitcher; the only chair was a grim straight object of spotty varnish; but there was an altogether splendid gilt and rose cuspidor.