Kennicott said judiciously, "Oh, I don't want to be unjust to him. I believe he took his physical examination for military service. Got varicose veins — not bad, but enough to disqualify him. Though I will say he doesn't look like a fellow that would be so awful darn crazy to poke his bayonet into a Hun's guts."
"Well, he don't. Looks soft to me. And they say he told Del Snafflin, when he was getting a hair-cut on Saturday, that he wished he could play the piano."
"Isn't it wonderful how much we all know about one another in a town like this," said Carol innocently.
Kennicott was suspicious, but Aunt Bessie, serving the floating island pudding, agreed, "Yes, it is wonderful. Folks can get away with all sorts of meannesses and sins in these terrible cities, but they can't here. I was noticing this tailor fellow this morning, and when Mrs. Riggs offered to share her hymn-book with him, he shook his head, and all the while we was singing he just stood there like a bump on a log and never opened his mouth. Everybody says he's got an idea that he's got so much better manners and all than what the rest of us have, but if that's what he calls good manners, I want to know!"
Carol again studied the carving-knife. Blood on the whiteness of a tablecloth might be gorgeous.
"Fool! Neurotic impossibilist! Telling yourself orchard fairy-tales — at thirty. . . . Dear Lord, am I really THIRTY? That boy can't be more than twenty-five."
She went calling.
Boarding with the Widow Bogart was Fern Mullins, a girl of twenty-two who was to be teacher of English, French, and gymnastics in the high school this coming session. Fern Mullins had come to town early, for the six-weeks normal course for country teachers. Carol had noticed her on the street, had heard almost as much about her as about Erik Valborg. She was tall, weedy, pretty, and incurably rakish. Whether she wore a low middy collar or dressed reticently for school in a black suit with a high-necked blouse, she was airy, flippant. "She looks like an absolute totty," said all the Mrs. Sam Clarks, disapprovingly, and all the Juanita Haydocks, enviously.
That Sunday evening, sitting in baggy canvas lawn-chairs beside the house, the Kennicotts saw Fern laughing with Cy Bogart who, though still a junior in high school, was now a lump of a man, only two or three years younger than Fern. Cy had to go downtown for weighty matters connected with the pool-parlor. Fern drooped on the Bogart porch, her chin in her hands.
"She looks lonely," said Kennicott.
"She does, poor soul. I believe I'll go over and speak to her. I was introduced to her at Dave's but I haven't called." Carol was slipping across the lawn, a white figure in the dimness, faintly brushing the dewy grass. She was thinking of Erik and of the fact that her feet were wet, and she was casual in her greeting: "Hello! The doctor and I wondered if you were lonely."
Resentfully, "I am!"
Carol concentrated on her. "My dear, you sound so! I know how it is. I used to be tired when I was on the job — I was a librarian. What was your college? I was Blodgett."
More interestedly, "I went to the U." Fern meant the University of Minnesota.
"You must have had a splendid time. Blodgett was a bit dull."
"Where were you a librarian?" challengingly.
"St. Paul — the main library."
"Honest? Oh dear, I wish I was back in the Cities! This is my first year of teaching, and I'm scared stiff. I did have the best time in college: dramatics and basket-ball and fussing and dancing — I'm simply crazy about dancing. And here, except when I have the kids in gymnasium class, or when I'm chaperoning the basket-ball team on a trip out-of-town, I won't dare to move above a whisper. I guess they don't care much if you put any pep into teaching or not, as long as you look like a Good Influence out of school-hours — and that means never doing anything you want to. This normal course is bad enough, but the regular school will be FIERCE! If it wasn't too late to get a job in the Cities, I swear I'd resign here. I bet I won't dare to go to a single dance all winter. If I cut loose and danced the way I like to, they'd think I was a perfect hellion — poor harmless me! Oh, I oughtn't to be talking like this. Fern, you never could be cagey!"
"Don't be frightened, my dear! . . . Doesn't that sound atrociously old and kind! I'm talking to you the way Mrs. Westlake talks to me! That's having a husband and a kitchen range, I suppose. But I feel young, and I want to dance like a — like a hellion? — too. So I sympathize."
Fern made a sound of gratitude. Carol inquired, "What experience did you have with college dramatics? I tried to start a kind of Little Theater here. It was dreadful. I must tell you about it — — "
Two hours later, when Kennicott came over to greet Fern and to yawn, "Look here, Carrie, don't you suppose you better be thinking about turning in? I've got a hard day tomorrow," the two were talking so intimately that they constantly interrupted each other.
As she went respectably home, convoyed by a husband, and decorously holding up her skirts, Carol rejoiced, "Everything has changed! I have two friends, Fern and — — But who's the other? That's queer; I thought there was — — Oh, how absurd!"
She often passed Erik Valborg on the street; the brown jersey coat became unremarkable. When she was driving with Kennicott, in early evening, she saw him on the lake shore, reading a thin book which might easily have been poetry. She noted that he was the only person in the motorized town who still took long walks.
She told herself that she was the daughter of a judge, the wife of a doctor, and that she did not care to know a capering tailor. She told herself that she was not responsive to men . . . not even to Percy Bresnahan. She told herself that a woman of thirty who heeded a boy of twenty-five was ridiculous. And on Friday, when she had convinced herself that the errand was necessary, she went to Nat Hicks's shop, bearing the not very romantic burden of a pair of her husband's trousers. Hicks was in the back room. She faced the Greek god who, in a somewhat ungodlike way, was stitching a coat on a scaley sewing-machine, in a room of smutted plaster walls.
She saw that his hands were not in keeping with a Hellenic face. They were thick, roughened with needle and hot iron and plow-handle. Even in the shop he persisted in his finery. He wore a silk shirt, a topaz scarf, thin tan shoes.
This she absorbed while she was saying curtly, "Can I get these pressed, please?"
Not rising from the sewing-machine he stuck out his hand, mumbled, "When do you want them?"
The adventure was over. She was marching out.
"What name?" he called after her.
He had risen and, despite the farcicality of Dr. Will Kennicott's bulgy trousers draped over his arm, he had the grace of a cat.
"Kennicott. Oh! Oh say, you're Mrs. Dr. Kennicott then, aren't you?"
"Yes." She stood at the door. Now that she had carried out her preposterous impulse to see what he was like, she was cold, she was as ready to detect familiarities as the virtuous Miss Ella Stowbody.
"I've heard about you. Myrtle Cass was saying you got up a dramatic club and gave a dandy play. I've always wished I had a chance to belong to a Little Theater, and give some European plays, or whimsical like Barrie, or a pageant."
He pronounced it "pagent"; he rhymed "pag" with "rag."
Carol nodded in the manner of a lady being kind to a tradesman, and one of her selves sneered, "Our Erik is indeed a lost John Keats."
He was appealing, "Do you suppose it would be possible to get up another dramatic club this coming fall?"
"Well, it might be worth thinking of." She came out of her several conflicting poses, and said sincerely, "There's a new teacher, Miss Mullins, who might have some talent. That would make three of us for a nucleus. If we could scrape up half a dozen we might give a real play with a small cast. Have you had any experience?"
"Just a bum club that some of us got up in Minneapolis when I was working there. We had one good man, an interior decorator — maybe he was kind of sis and effeminate, but he really was an artist, and we gave one dandy play. But I — — Of course I've always had to work hard, and study by myself, and I'm probably sloppy, and I'd love it if I had training in rehearsing — I mean, the crankier the director was, the better I'd like it. If you didn't want to use me as an actor, I'd love to design the costumes. I'm crazy about fabrics — textures and colors and designs."