She knew that he was trying to keep her from going, trying to indicate that he was something more than a person to whom one brought trousers for pressing. He besought:
"Some day I hope I can get away from this fool repairing, when I have the money saved up. I want to go East and work for some big dressmaker, and study art drawing, and become a high-class designer. Or do you think that's a kind of fiddlin' ambition for a fellow? I was brought up on a farm. And then monkeyin' round with silks! I don't know. What do you think? Myrtle Cass says you're awfully educated."
"I am. Awfully. Tell me: Have the boys made fun of your ambition?"
She was seventy years old, and sexless, and more advisory than Vida Sherwin.
"Well, they have, at that. They've jollied me a good deal, here and Minneapolis both. They say dressmaking is ladies' work. (But I was willing to get drafted for the war! I tried to get in. But they rejected me. But I did try! ) I thought some of working up in a gents' furnishings store, and I had a chance to travel on the road for a clothing house, but somehow — I hate this tailoring, but I can't seem to get enthusiastic about salesmanship. I keep thinking about a room in gray oatmeal paper with prints in very narrow gold frames — or would it be better in white enamel paneling? — but anyway, it looks out on Fifth Avenue, and I'm designing a sumptuous — — " He made it "sump-too-ous" — "robe of linden green chiffon over cloth of gold! You know — tileul. It's elegant. . . . What do you think?"
"Why not? What do you care for the opinion of city rowdies, or a lot of farm boys? But you mustn't, you really mustn't, let casual strangers like me have a chance to judge you."
"Well — — You aren't a stranger, one way. Myrtle Cass — Miss Cass, should say — she's spoken about you so often. I wanted to call on you — and the doctor — but I didn't quite have the nerve. One evening I walked past your house, but you and your husband were talking on the porch, and you looked so chummy and happy I didn't dare butt in."
Maternally, "I think it's extremely nice of you to want to be trained in — in enunciation by a stage-director. Perhaps I could help you. I'm a thoroughly sound and uninspired schoolma'am by instinct; quite hopelessly mature."
"Oh, you aren't EITHER!"
She was not very successful at accepting his fervor with the air of amused woman of the world, but she sounded reasonably impersonal: "Thank you. Shall we see if we really can get up a new dramatic club? I'll tell you: Come to the house this evening, about eight. I'll ask Miss Mullins to come over, and we'll talk about it."
"He has absolutely no sense of humor. Less than Will. But hasn't he — — -What is a 'sense of humor'? Isn't the thing he lacks the back-slapping jocosity that passes for humor here? Anyway — — Poor lamb, coaxing me to stay and play with him! Poor lonely lamb! If he could be free from Nat Hickses, from people who say 'dandy' and 'bum,' would he develop?
"I wonder if Whitman didn't use Brooklyn back-street slang, as a boy?
"No. Not Whitman. He's Keats — sensitive to silken things. 'Innumerable of stains and splendid dyes as are the tiger-moth's deep-damask'd wings.' Keats, here! A bewildered spirit fallen on Main Street. And Main Street laughs till it aches, giggles till the spirit doubts his own self and tries to give up the use of wings for the correct uses of a 'gents' furnishings store.' Gopher Prairie with its celebrated eleven miles of cement walk. . . . I wonder how much of the cement is made out of the tombstones of John Keatses?"
Kennicott was cordial to Fern Mullins, teased her, told her he was a "great hand for running off with pretty school-teachers," and promised that if the school-board should object to her dancing, he would "bat 'em one over the head and tell 'em how lucky they were to get a girl with some go to her, for once."
But to Erik Valborg he was not cordial. He shook hands loosely, and said, "H' are yuh."
Nat Hicks was socially acceptable; he had been here for years, and owned his shop; but this person was merely Nat's workman, and the town's principle of perfect democracy was not meant to be applied indiscriminately.
The conference on a dramatic club theoretically included Kennicott, but he sat back, patting yawns, conscious of Fern's ankles, smiling amiably on the children at their sport.
Fern wanted to tell her grievances; Carol was sulky every time she thought of "The Girl from Kankakee"; it was Erik who made suggestions. He had read with astounding breadth, and astounding lack of judgment. His voice was sensitive to liquids, but he overused the word "glorious." He mispronounced a tenth of the words he had from books, but he knew it. He was insistent, but he was shy.
When he demanded, "I'd like to stage 'Suppressed Desires,' by Cook and Miss Glaspell," Carol ceased to be patronizing. He was not the yearner: he was the artist, sure of his vision. "I'd make it simple. Use a big window at the back, with a cyclorama of a blue that would simply hit you in the eye, and just one tree-branch, to suggest a park below. Put the breakfast table on a dais. Let the colors be kind of arty and tea-roomy — orange chairs, and orange and blue table, and blue Japanese breakfast set, and some place, one big flat smear of black — bang! Oh. Another play I wish we could do is Tennyson Jesse's 'The Black Mask.' I've never seen it but — — Glorious ending, where this woman looks at the man with his face all blown away, and she just gives one horrible scream."
"Good God, is that your idea of a glorious ending?" bayed Kennicott.
"That sounds fierce! I do love artistic things, but not the horrible ones," moaned Fern Mullins.
Erik was bewildered; glanced at Carol. She nodded loyally.
At the end of the conference they had decided nothing.