FERN Mullins rushed into the house on a Saturday morning early in September and shrieked at Carol, "School starts next Tuesday. I've got to have one more spree before I'm arrested. Let's get up a picnic down the lake for this afternoon. Won't you come, Mrs. Kennicott, and the doctor? Cy Bogart wants to go — he's a brat but he's lively."
"I don't think the doctor can go," sedately. "He said something about having to make a country call this afternoon. But I'd love to."
"That's dandy! Who can we get?"
"Mrs. Dyer might be chaperon. She's been so nice. And maybe Dave, if he could get away from the store."
"How about Erik Valborg? I think he's got lots more style than these town boys. You like him all right, don't you?"
So the picnic of Carol, Fern, Erik, Cy Bogart, and the Dyers was not only moral but inevitable.
They drove to the birch grove on the south shore of Lake Minniemashie. Dave Dyer was his most clownish self. He yelped, jigged, wore Carol's hat, dropped an ant down Fern's back, and when they went swimming (the women modestly changing in the car with the side curtains up, the men undressing behind the bushes, constantly repeating, "Gee, hope we don't run into poison ivy"), Dave splashed water on them and dived to clutch his wife's ankle. He infected the others. Erik gave an imitation of the Greek dancers he had seen in vaudeville, and when they sat down to picnic supper spread on a lap-robe on the grass, Cy climbed a tree to throw acorns at them.
But Carol could not frolic.
She had made herself young, with parted hair, sailor blouse and large blue bow, white canvas shoes and short linen skirt. Her mirror had asserted that she looked exactly as she had in college, that her throat was smooth, her collar-bone not very noticeable. But she was under restraint. When they swam she enjoyed the freshness of the water but she was irritated by Cy's tricks, by Dave's excessive good spirits. She admired Erik's dance; he could never betray bad taste, as Cy did, and Dave. She waited for him to come to her. He did not come. By his joyousness he had apparently endeared himself to the Dyers. Maud watched him and, after supper, cried to him, "Come sit down beside me, bad boy!" Carol winced at his willingness to be a bad boy and come and sit, at his enjoyment of a not very stimulating game in which Maud, Dave, and Cy snatched slices of cold tongue from one another's plates. Maud, it seemed, was slightly dizzy from the swim. She remarked publicly, "Dr. Kennicott has helped me so much by putting me on a diet," but it was to Erik alone that she gave the complete version of her peculiarity in being so sensitive, so easily hurt by the slightest cross word, that she simply had to have nice cheery friends.
Erik was nice and cheery.
Carol assured herself, "Whatever faults I may have, I certainly couldn't ever be jealous. I do like Maud; she's always so pleasant. But I wonder if she isn't just a bit fond of fishing for men's sympathy? Playing with Erik, and her married — — Well — — But she looks at him in that languishing, swooning, mid-Victorian way. Disgusting!"
Cy Bogart lay between the roots of a big birch, smoking his pipe and teasing Fern, assuring her that a week from now, when he was again a high-school boy and she his teacher, he'd wink at her in class. Maud Dyer wanted Erik to "come down to the beach to see the darling little minnies." Carol was left to Dave, who tried to entertain her with humorous accounts of Ella Stowbody's fondness for chocolate peppermints. She watched Maud Dyer put her hand on Erik's shoulder to steady herself.
"Disgusting!" she thought.
Cy Bogart covered Fern's nervous hand with his red paw, and when she bounced with half-anger and shrieked, "Let go, I tell you!" he grinned and waved his pipe — a gangling twenty-year-old satyr.
When Maud and Erik returned and the grouping shifted, Erik muttered at Carol, "There's a boat on shore. Let's skip off and have a row."
"What will they think?" she worried. She saw Maud Dyer peer at Erik with moist possessive eyes. "Yes! Let's!" she said.
She cried to the party, with the canonical amount of sprightliness, "Good-by, everybody. We'll wireless you from China."
As the rhythmic oars plopped and creaked, as she floated on an unreality of delicate gray over which the sunset was poured out thin, the irritation of Cy and Maud slipped away. Erik smiled at her proudly. She considered him — coatless, in white thin shirt. She was conscious of his male differentness, of his flat masculine sides, his thin thighs, his easy rowing. They talked of the library, of the movies. He hummed and she softly sang "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot." A breeze shivered across the agate lake. The wrinkled water was like armor damascened and polished. The breeze flowed round the boat in a chill current. Carol drew the collar of her middy blouse over her bare throat.
"Getting cold. Afraid we'll have to go back," she said.
"Let's not go back to them yet. They'll be cutting up. Let's keep along the shore."
"But you enjoy the 'cutting up!' Maud and you had a beautiful time."
"Why! We just walked on the shore and talked about fishing!"
She was relieved, and apologetic to her friend Maud. "Of course. I was joking."
"I'll tell you! Let's land here and sit on the shore — that bunch of hazel-brush will shelter us from the wind — and watch the sunset. It's like melted lead. Just a short while! We don't want to go back and listen to them!"
"No, but — — " She said nothing while he sped ashore. The keel clashed on the stones. He stood on the forward seat, holding out his hand. They were alone, in the ripple-lapping silence. She rose slowly, slowly stepped over the water in the bottom of the old boat. She took his hand confidently. Unspeaking they sat on a bleached log, in a russet twilight which hinted of autumn. Linden leaves fluttered about them.
"I wish — — Are you cold now?" he whispered.
"A little." She shivered. But it was not with cold.
"I wish we could curl up in the leaves there, covered all up, and lie looking out at the dark."
"I wish we could." As though it was comfortably understood that he did not mean to be taken seriously.
"Like what all the poets say — brown nymph and faun."
"No. I can't be a nymph any more. Too old — — Erik, am I old? Am I faded and small-towny?"