He mused, "You're younger than I am. Your lips are for songs about rivers in the morning and lakes at twilight. I don't see how anybody could ever hurt you. . . . Yes. We better go."
He trudged beside her, his eyes averted. Hugh experimentally took his thumb. He looked down at the baby seriously. He burst out, "All right. I'll do it. I'll stay here one year. Save. Not spend so much money on clothes. And then I'll go East, to art-school. Work on the side-tailor shop, dressmaker's. I'll learn what I'm good for: designing clothes, stage-settings, illustrating, or selling collars to fat men. All settled." He peered at her, unsmiling.
"Can you stand it here in town for a year?"
"With you to look at?"
"Please! I mean: Don't the people here think you're an odd bird? (They do me, I assure you!)"
"I don't know. I never notice much. Oh, they do kid me about not being in the army — especially the old warhorses, the old men that aren't going themselves. And this Bogart boy. And Mr. Hicks's son — he's a horrible brat. But probably he's licensed to say what he thinks about his father's hired man!"
They were in town. They passed Aunt Bessie's house. Aunt Bessie and Mrs. Bogart were at the window, and Carol saw that they were staring so intently that they answered her wave only with the stiffly raised hands of automatons. In the next block Mrs. Dr. Westlake was gaping from her porch. Carol said with an embarrassed quaver:
"I want to run in and see Mrs. Westlake. I'll say good-by here."
She avoided his eyes.
Mrs. Westlake was affable. Carol felt that she was expected to explain; and while she was mentally asserting that she'd be hanged if she'd explain, she was explaining:
"Hugh captured that Valborg boy up the track. They became such good friends. And I talked to him for a while. I'd heard he was eccentric, but really, I found him quite intelligent. Crude, but he reads — reads almost the way Dr. Westlake does."
"That's fine. Why does he stick here in town? What's this I hear about his being interested in Myrtle Cass?"
"I don't know. Is he? I'm sure he isn't! He said he was quite lonely! Besides, Myrtle is a babe in arms!"
"Twenty-one if she's a day!"
"Well — — Is the doctor going to do any hunting this fall?"
The need of explaining Erik dragged her back into doubting. For all his ardent reading, and his ardent life, was he anything but a small-town youth bred on an illiberal farm and in cheap tailor shops? He had rough hands. She had been attracted only by hands that were fine and suave, like those of her father. Delicate hands and resolute purpose. But this boy — powerful seamed hands and flabby will.
"It's not appealing weakness like his, but sane strength that win animate the Gopher Prairies. Only — — Does that mean anything? Or am I echoing Vida? The world has always let 'strong' statesmen and soldiers — the men with strong voices — take control, and what have the thundering boobies done? What is 'strength'?
"This classifying of people! I suppose tailors differ as much as burglars or kings.
"Erik frightened me when he turned on me. Of course he didn't mean anything, but I mustn't let him be so personal.
"But he didn't mean to be.
"His hands are FIRM. I wonder if sculptors don't have thick hands, too?
"Of course if there really is anything I can do to HELP the boy — —
"Though I despise these people who interfere. He must be independent."
She wasn't altogether pleased, the week after, when Erik was independent and, without asking for her inspiration, planned the tennis tournament. It proved that he had learned to play in Minneapolis; that, next to Juanita Haydock, he had the best serve in town. Tennis was well spoken of in Gopher Prairie and almost never played. There were three courts: one belonging to Harry Haydock, one to the cottages at the lake, and one, a rough field on the outskirts, laid out by a defunct tennis association.
Erik had been seen in flannels and an imitation panama hat, playing on the abandoned court with Willis Woodford, the clerk in Stowbody's bank. Suddenly he was going about proposing the reorganization of the tennis association, and writing names in a fifteen-cent note-book bought for the purpose at Dyer's. When he came to Carol he was so excited over being an organizer that he did not stop to talk of himself and Aubrey Beardsley for more than ten minutes. He begged, "Will you get some of the folks to come in?" and she nodded agreeably.
He proposed an informal exhibition match to advertise the association; he suggested that Carol and himself, the Haydocks, the Woodfords, and the Dillons play doubles, and that the association be formed from the gathered enthusiasts. He had asked Harry Haydock to be tentative president. Harry, he reported, had promised, "All right. You bet. But you go ahead and arrange things, and I'll O.K. 'em." Erik planned that the match should be held Saturday afternoon, on the old public court at the edge of town. He was happy in being, for the first time, part of Gopher Prairie.
Through the week Carol heard how select an attendance there was to be.
Kennicott growled that he didn't care to go.
Had he any objections to her playing with Erik?
No; sure not; she needed the exercise. Carol went to the match early. The court was in a meadow out on the New Antonia road. Only Erik was there. He was dashing about with a rake, trying to make the court somewhat less like a plowed field. He admitted that he had stage fright at the thought of the coming horde. Willis and Mrs. Woodford arrived, Willis in home-made knickers and black sneakers through at the toe; then Dr. and Mrs. Harvey Dillon, people as harmless and grateful as the Woodfords.
Carol was embarrassed and excessively agreeable, like the bishop's lady trying not to feel out of place at a Baptist bazaar.
The match was scheduled for three. As spectators there assembled one youthful grocery clerk, stopping his Ford delivery wagon to stare from the seat, and one solemn small boy, tugging a smaller sister who had a careless nose.
"I wonder where the Haydocks are? They ought to show up, at least," said Erik.
Carol smiled confidently at him, and peered down the empty road toward town. Only heat-waves and dust and dusty weeds.
At half-past three no one had come, and the grocery boy reluctantly got out, cranked his Ford, glared at them in a disillusioned manner, and rattled away. The small boy and his sister ate grass and sighed.
The players pretended to be exhilarated by practising service, but they startled at each dust-cloud from a motor car. None of the cars turned into the meadow-none till a quarter to four, when Kennicott drove in.
Carol's heart swelled. "How loyal he is! Depend on him! He'd come, if nobody else did. Even though he doesn't care for the game. The old darling!"
Kennicott did not alight. He called out, "Carrie! Harry Haydock 'phoned me that they've decided to hold the tennis matches, or whatever you call 'em, down at the cottages at the lake, instead of here. The bunch are down there now: Haydocks and Dyers and Clarks and everybody. Harry wanted to know if I'd bring you down. I guess I can take the time — come right back after supper."
Before Carol could sum it all up, Erik stammered, "Why, Haydock didn't say anything to me about the change. Of course he's the president, but — — "
Kennicott looked at him heavily, and grunted, "I don't know a thing about it. . . . Coming, Carrie?"
"I am not! The match was to be here, and it will be here! You can tell Harry Haydock that he's beastly rude!" She rallied the five who had been left out, who would always be left out. "Come on! We'll toss to see which four of us play the Only and Original First Annual Tennis Tournament of Forest Hills, Del Monte, and Gopher Prairie!"
"Don't know as I blame you," said Kennicott. "Well have supper at home then?" He drove off.