She wondered why she sang so often, and why she found so many pleasant things — lamplight seen though trees on a cool evening, sunshine on brown wood, morning sparrows, black sloping roofs turned to plates of silver by moonlight. Pleasant things, small friendly things, and pleasant places — a field of goldenrod, a pasture by the creek — and suddenly a wealth of pleasant people. Vida was lenient to Carol at the surgical-dressing class; Mrs. Dave Dyer flattered her with questions about her health, baby, cook, and opinions on the war.
Mrs. Dyer seemed not to share the town's prejudice against Erik. "He's a nice-looking fellow; we must have him go on one of our picnics some time." Unexpectedly, Dave Dyer also liked him. The tight-fisted little farceur had a confused reverence for anything that seemed to him refined or clever. He answered Harry Haydock's sneers, "That's all right now! Elizabeth may doll himself up too much, but he's smart, and don't you forget it! I was asking round trying to find out where this Ukraine is, and darn if he didn't tell me. What's the matter with his talking so polite? Hell's bells, Harry, no harm in being polite. There's some regular he-men that are just as polite as women, prett' near."
Carol found herself going about rejoicing, "How neighborly the town is!" She drew up with a dismayed "Am I falling in love with this boy? That's ridiculous! I'm merely interested in him. I like to think of helping him to succeed."
But as she dusted the living-room, mended a collar-band, bathed Hugh, she was picturing herself and a young artistan Apollo nameless and evasive — building a house in the Berkshires or in Virginia; exuberantly buying a chair with his first check; reading poetry together, and frequently being earnest over valuable statistics about labor; tumbling out of bed early for a Sunday walk, and chattering (where Kennicott would have yawned) over bread and butter by a lake. Hugh was in her pictures, and he adored the young artist, who made castles of chairs and rugs for him. Beyond these playtimes she saw the "things I could do for Erik" — and she admitted that Erik did partly make up the image of her altogether perfect artist.
In panic she insisted on being attentive to Kennicott, when he wanted to be left alone to read the newspaper.
She needed new clothes. Kennicott had promised, "We'll have a good trip down to the Cities in the fall, and take plenty of time for it, and you can get your new glad-rags then." But as she examined her wardrobe she flung her ancient black velvet frock on the floor and raged, "They're disgraceful. Everything I have is falling to pieces."
There was a new dressmaker and milliner, a Mrs. Swiftwaite. It was said that she was not altogether an elevating influence in the way she glanced at men; that she would as soon take away a legally appropriated husband as not; that if there WAS any Mr. Swiftwaite, "it certainly was strange that nobody seemed to know anything about him!" But she had made for Rita Gould an organdy frock and hat to match universally admitted to be "too cunning for words," and the matrons went cautiously, with darting eyes and excessive politeness, to the rooms which Mrs. Swiftwaite had taken in the old Luke Dawson house, on Floral Avenue.
With none of the spiritual preparation which normally precedes the buying of new clothes in Gopher Prairie, Carol marched into Mrs. Swiftwaite's, and demanded, "I want to see a hat, and possibly a blouse."
In the dingy old front parlor which she had tried to make smart with a pier glass, covers from fashion magazines, anemic French prints, Mrs. Swiftwaite moved smoothly among the dress-dummies and hat-rests, spoke smoothly as she took up a small black and red turban. "I am sure the lady will find this extremely attractive."
"It's dreadfully tabby and small-towny," thought Carol, while she soothed, "I don't believe it quite goes with me."
"It's the choicest thing I have, and I'm sure you'll find it suits you beautifully. It has a great deal of chic. Please try it on," said Mrs. Swiftwaite, more smoothly than ever.
Carol studied the woman. She was as imitative as a glass diamond. She was the more rustic in her effort to appear urban. She wore a severe high-collared blouse with a row of small black buttons, which was becoming to her low-breasted slim neatness, but her skirt was hysterically checkered, her cheeks were too highly rouged, her lips too sharply penciled. She was magnificently a specimen of the illiterate divorcee of forty made up to look thirty, clever, and alluring.
While she was trying on the hat Carol felt very condescending. She took it off, shook her head, explained with the kind smile for inferiors, "I'm afraid it won't do, though it's unusually nice for so small a town as this."
"But it's really absolutely New-Yorkish."
"Well, it — — "
"You see, I know my New York styles. I lived in New York for years, besides almost a year in Akron!"
"You did?" Carol was polite, and edged away, and went home unhappily. She was wondering whether her own airs were as laughable as Mrs. Swiftwaite's. She put on the eye-glasses which Kennicott had recently given to her for reading, and looked over a grocery bill. She went hastily up to her room, to her mirror. She was in a mood of self-depreciation. Accurately or not, this was the picture she saw in the mirror:
Neat rimless eye-glasses. Black hair clumsily tucked under a mauve straw hat which would have suited a spinster. Cheeks clear, bloodless. Thin nose. Gentle mouth and chin. A modest voile blouse with an edging of lace at the neck. A virginal sweetness and timorousness — no flare of gaiety, no suggestion of cities, music, quick laughter.
"I have become a small-town woman. Absolute. Typical. Modest and moral and safe. Protected from life. GENTEEL! The Village Virus — the village virtuousness. My hair — just scrambled together. What can Erik see in that wedded spinster there? He does like me! Because I'm the only woman who's decent to him! How long before he'll wake up to me? . . . I've waked up to myself. . . . Am I as old as — as old as I am?
"Not really old. Become careless. Let myself look tabby.
"I want to chuck every stitch I own. Black hair and pale cheeks — they'd go with a Spanish dancer's costume — rose behind my ear, scarlet mantilla over one shoulder, the other bare."
She seized the rouge sponge, daubed her cheeks, scratched at her lips with the vermilion pencil until they stung, tore open her collar. She posed with her thin arms in the attitude of the fandango. She dropped them sharply. She shook her head. "My heart doesn't dance," she said. She flushed as she fastened her blouse.
"At least I'm much more graceful than Fern Mullins. Heavens! When I came here from the Cities, girls imitated me. Now I'm trying to imitate a city girl."