She did not try to draw out Fern's story; Fern insisted on telling it.
She had gone to the party, not quite liking Cy but willing to endure him for the sake of dancing, of escaping from Mrs. Bogart's flow of moral comments, of relaxing after the first strained weeks of teaching. Cy "promised to be good." He was, on the way out. There were a few workmen from Gopher Prairie at the dance, with many young farm-people. Half a dozen squatters from a degenerate colony in a brush-hidden hollow, planters of potatoes, suspected thieves, came in noisily drunk. They all pounded the floor of the barn in old-fashioned square dances, swinging their partners, skipping, laughing, under the incantations of Del Snafflin the barber, who fiddled and called the figures. Cy had two drinks from pocket-flasks. Fern saw him fumbling among the overcoats piled on the feedbox at the far end of the barn; soon after she heard a farmer declaring that some one had stolen his bottle. She taxed Cy with the theft; he chuckled, "Oh, it's just a joke; I'm going to give it back." He demanded that she take a drink. Unless she did, he wouldn't return the bottle.
"I just brushed my lips with it, and gave it back to him," moaned Fern. She sat up, glared at Carol. "Did you ever take a drink?"
"I have. A few. I'd love to have one right now! This contact with righteousness has about done me up!"
Fern could laugh then. "So would I! I don't suppose I've had five drinks in my life, but if I meet just one more Bogart and Son — — Well, I didn't really touch that bottle — horrible raw whisky — though I'd have loved some wine. I felt so jolly. The barn was almost like a stage scene — the high rafters, and the dark stalls, and tin lanterns swinging, and a silage-cutter up at the end like some mysterious kind of machine. And I'd been having lots of fun dancing with the nicest young farmer, so strong and nice, and awfully intelligent. But I got uneasy when I saw how Cy was. So I doubt if I touched two drops of the beastly stuff. Do you suppose God is punishing me for even wanting wine?"
"My dear, Mrs. Bogart's god may be — Main Street's god. But all the courageous intelligent people are fighting him . . . though he slay us."
Fern danced again with the young farmer; she forgot Cy while she was talking with a girl who had taken the University agricultural course. Cy could not have returned the bottle; he came staggering toward her — taking time to make himself offensive to every girl on the way and to dance a jig. She insisted on their returning. Cy went with her, chuckling and jigging. He kissed her, outside the door. . . . "And to think I used to think it was interesting to have men kiss you at a dance!". . . She ignored the kiss, in the need of getting him home before he started a fight. A farmer helped her harness the buggy, while Cy snored in the seat. He awoke before they set out; all the way home he alternately slept and tried to make love to her.
"I'm almost as strong as he is. I managed to keep him away while I drove — such a rickety buggy. I didn't feel like a girl; I felt like a scrubwoman — no, I guess I was too scared to have any feelings at all. It was terribly dark. I got home, somehow. But it was hard, the time I had to get out, and it was quite muddy, to read a sign-post — I lit matches that I took from Cy's coat pocket, and he followed me — he fell off the buggy step into the mud, and got up and tried to make love to me, and — — I was scared. But I hit him. Quite hard. And got in, and so he ran after the buggy, crying like a baby, and I let him in again, and right away again he was trying — — But no matter. I got him home. Up on the porch. Mrs. Bogart was waiting up. . . .
"You know, it was funny; all the time she was — oh, talking to me — and Cy was being terribly sick — I just kept thinking, 'I've still got to drive the buggy down to the livery stable. I wonder if the livery man will be awake?' But I got through somehow. I took the buggy down to the stable, and got to my room. I locked my door, but Mrs. Bogart kept saying things, outside the door. Stood out there saying things about me, dreadful things, and rattling the knob. And all the while I could hear Cy in the back yard-being sick. I don't think I'll ever marry any man. And then today — —
"She drove me right out of the house. She wouldn't listen to me, all morning. Just to Cy. I suppose he's over his headache now. Even at breakfast he thought the whole thing was a grand joke. I suppose right this minute he's going around town boasting about his 'conquest.' You understand — oh, DON'T you understand? I DID keep him away! But I don't see how I can face my school. They say country towns are fine for bringing up boys in, but — — I can't believe this is me, lying here and saying this. I don't BELIEVE what happened last night.
"Oh. This was curious: When I took off my dress last night — it was a darling dress, I loved it so, but of course the mud had spoiled it. I cried over it and — — No matter. But my white silk stockings were all torn, and the strange thing is, I don't know whether I caught my legs in the briers when I got out to look at the sign-post, or whether Cy scratched me when I was fighting him off."
Sam Clark was president of the school-board. When Carol told him Fern's story Sam looked sympathetic and neighborly, and Mrs. Clark sat by cooing, "Oh, isn't that too bad." Carol was interrupted only when Mrs. Clark begged, "Dear, don't speak so bitter about 'pious' people. There's lots of sincere practising Christians that are real tolerant. Like the Champ Perrys."
"Yes. I know. Unfortunately there are enough kindly people in the churches to keep them going."
When Carol had finished, Mrs. Clark breathed, "Poor girl; I don't doubt her story a bit," and Sam rumbled, "Yuh, sure. Miss Mullins is young and reckless, but everybody in town, except Ma Bogart, knows what Cy is. But Miss Mullins was a fool to go with him."
"But not wicked enough to pay for it with disgrace?"
"N-no, but — — " Sam avoided verdicts, clung to the entrancing horrors of the story. "Ma Bogart cussed her out all morning, did she? Jumped her neck, eh? Ma certainly is one hell-cat."
"Yes, you know how she is; so vicious."
"Oh no, her best style ain't her viciousness. What she pulls in our store is to come in smiling with Christian Fortitude and keep a clerk busy for one hour while she picks out half a dozen fourpenny nails. I remember one time — — "
"Sam!" Carol was uneasy. "You'll fight for Fern, won't you? When Mrs. Bogart came to see you did she make definite charges?"
"Well, yes, you might say she did."
"But the school-board won't act on them?"
"Guess we'll more or less have to."
"But you'll exonerate Fern?"
"I'll do what I can for the girl personally, but you know what the board is. There's Reverend Zitterel; Sister Bogart about half runs his church, so of course he'll take her say-so; and Ezra Stowbody, as a banker he has to be all hell for morality and purity. Might 's well admit it, Carrie; I'm afraid there'll be a majority of the board against her. Not that any of us would believe a word Cy said, not if he swore it on a stack of Bibles, but still, after all this gossip, Miss Mullins wouldn't hardly be the party to chaperon our basket-ball team when it went out of town to play other high schools, would she!"
"Perhaps not, but couldn't some one else?"
"Why, that's one of the things she was hired for." Sam sounded stubborn.
"Do you realize that this isn't just a matter of a job, and hiring and firing; that it's actually sending a splendid girl out with a beastly stain on her, giving all the other Bogarts in the world a chance at her? That's what will happen if you discharge her."
Sam moved uncomfortably, looked at his wife, scratched his head, sighed, said nothing.
"Won't you fight for her on the board? If you lose, won't you, and whoever agrees with you, make a minority report?"
"No reports made in a case like this. Our rule is to just decide the thing and announce the final decision, whether it's unanimous or not."
"Rules! Against a girl's future! Dear God! Rules of a school-board! Sam! Won't you stand by Fern, and threaten to resign from the board if they try to discharge her?"
Rather testy, tired of so many subtleties, he complained, "Well, I'll do what I can, but I'll have to wait till the board meets."
And "I'll do what I can," together with the secret admission "Of course you and I know what Ma Bogart is," was all Carol could get from Superintendent George Edwin Mott, Ezra Stowbody, the Reverend Mr. Zitterel or any other member of the school-board.