"Been funny season this year, anyway. Never saw it with such a cold October and such a nice November. 'Member we had a snow way back on October ninth! But it certainly was nice up to the twenty-first, this month — as I remember it, not a flake of snow in November so far, has there been? But I shouldn't wonder if we'd be having some snow 'most any time now."
"Yes, good chance of it," said Erik.
"Wish I'd had more time to go after the ducks this fall. By golly, what do you think?" Kennicott sounded appealing. "Fellow wrote me from Man Trap Lake that he shot seven mallards and couple of canvas-back in one hour!"
"That must have been fine," said Erik.
Carol was ignored. But Kennicott was blustrously cheerful. He shouted to a farmer, as he slowed up to pass the frightened team, "There we are — schon gut!" She sat back, neglected, frozen, unheroic heroine in a drama insanely undramatic. She made a decision resolute and enduring. She would tell Kennicott — — What would she tell him? She could not say that she loved Erik. DID she love him? But she would have it out. She was not sure whether it was pity for Kennicott's blindness, or irritation at his assumption that he was enough to fill any woman's life, which prompted her, but she knew that she was out of the trap, that she could be frank; and she was exhilarated with the adventure of it . . . while in front he was entertaining Erik:
"Nothing like an hour on a duck-pass to make you relish your victuals and — — Gosh, this machine hasn't got the power of a fountain pen. Guess the cylinders are jam-cram-full of carbon again. Don't know but what maybe I'll have to put in another set of piston-rings."
He stopped on Main Street and clucked hospitably, "There, that'll give you just a block to walk. G' night."
Carol was in suspense. Would Erik sneak away?
He stolidly moved to the back of the car, thrust in his hand, muttered, "Good night — Carol. I'm glad we had our walk." She pressed his hand. The car was flapping on. He was hidden from her — by a corner drug store on Main Street!
Kennicott did not recognize her till he drew up before the house. Then he condescended, "Better jump out here and I'll take the boat around back. Say, see if the back door is unlocked, will you?" She unlatched the door for him. She realized that she still carried the damp glove she had stripped off for Erik. She drew it on. She stood in the center of the living-room, unmoving, in damp coat and muddy rubbers. Kennicott was as opaque as ever. Her task wouldn't be anything so lively as having to endure a scolding, but only an exasperating effort to command his attention so that he would understand the nebulous things she had to tell him, instead of interrupting her by yawning, winding the clock, and going up to bed. She heard him shoveling coal into the furnace. He came through the kitchen energetically, but before he spoke to her he did stop in the hall, did wind the clock.
He sauntered into the living-room and his glance passed from her drenched hat to her smeared rubbers. She could hear — she could hear, see, taste, smell, touch — his "Better take your coat off, Carrie; looks kind of wet." Yes, there it was:
"Well, Carrie, you better — — " He chucked his own coat on a chair, stalked to her, went on with a rising tingling voice, " — — you better cut it out now. I'm not going to do the out-raged husband stunt. I like you and I respect you, and I'd probably look like a boob if I tried to be dramatic. But I think it's about time for you and Valborg to call a halt before you get in Dutch, like Fern Mullins did."
"Do you — — "
"Course. I know all about it. What d' you expect in a town that's as filled with busybodies, that have plenty of time to stick their noses into other folks' business, as this is? Not that they've had the nerve to do much tattling to me, but they've hinted around a lot, and anyway, I could see for myself that you liked him. But of course I knew how cold you were, I knew you wouldn't stand it even if Valborg did try to hold your hand or kiss you, so I didn't worry. But same time, I hope you don't suppose this husky young Swede farmer is as innocent and Platonic and all that stuff as you are! Wait now, don't get sore! I'm not knocking him. He isn't a bad sort. And he's young and likes to gas about books. Course you like him. That isn't the real rub. But haven't you just seen what this town can do, once it goes and gets moral on you, like it did with Fern? You probably think that two young folks making love are alone if anybody ever is, but there's nothing in this town that you don't do in company with a whole lot of uninvited but awful interested guests. Don't you realize that if Ma Westlake and a few others got started they'd drive you up a tree, and you'd find yourself so well advertised as being in love with this Valborg fellow that you'd HAVE to be, just to spite 'em!"
"Let me sit down," was all Carol could say. She drooped on the couch, wearily, without elasticity.
He yawned, "Gimme your coat and rubbers," and while she stripped them off he twiddled his watch-chain, felt the radiator, peered at the thermometer. He shook out her wraps in the hall, hung them up with exactly his usual care. He pushed a chair near to her and sat bolt up. He looked like a physician about to give sound and undesired advice.
Before he could launch into his heavy discourse she desperately got in, "Please! I want you to know that I was going to tell you everything, tonight."
"Well, I don't suppose there's really much to tell."
"But there is. I'm fond of Erik. He appeals to something in here." She touched her breast. "And I admire him. He isn't just a 'young Swede farmer.' He's an artist — — "
"Wait now! He's had a chance all evening to tell you what a whale of a fine fellow he is. Now it's my turn. I can't talk artistic, but — — Carrie, do you understand my work?" He leaned forward, thick capable hands on thick sturdy thighs, mature and slow, yet beseeching. "No matter even if you are cold, I like you better than anybody in the world. One time I said that you were my soul. And that still goes. You're all the things that I see in a sunset when I'm driving in from the country, the things that I like but can't make poetry of. Do you realize what my job is? I go round twenty-four hours a day, in mud and blizzard, trying my damnedest to heal everybody, rich or poor. You — that 're always spieling about how scientists ought to rule the world, instead of a bunch of spread-eagle politicians — can't you see that I'm all the science there is here? And I can stand the cold and the bumpy roads and the lonely rides at night. All I need is to have you here at home to welcome me. I don't expect you to be passionate — not any more I don't — but I do expect you to appreciate my work. I bring babies into the world, and save lives, and make cranky husbands quit being mean to their wives. And then you go and moon over a Swede tailor because he can talk about how to put ruchings on a skirt! Hell of a thing for a man to fuss over!"
She flew out at him: "You make your side clear. Let me give mine. I admit all you say — except about Erik. But is it only you, and the baby, that want me to back you up, that demand things from me? They're all on me, the whole town! I can feel their hot breaths on my neck! Aunt Bessie and that horrible slavering old Uncle Whittier and Juanita and Mrs. Westlake and Mrs. Bogart and all of them. And you welcome them, you encourage them to drag me down into their cave! I won't stand it! Do you hear? Now, right now, I'm done. And it's Erik who gives me the courage. You say he just thinks about ruches (which do not usually go on skirts, by the way!). I tell you he thinks about God, the God that Mrs. Bogart covers up with greasy gingham wrappers! Erik will be a great man some day, and if I could contribute one tiny bit to his success — — "
"Wait, wait, wait now! Hold up! You're assuming that your Erik will make good. As a matter of fact, at my age he'll be running a one-man tailor shop in some burg about the size of Schoenstrom."
"He will not!"
"That's what he's headed for now all right, and he's twenty-five or -six and — — What's he done to make you think he'll ever be anything but a pants-presser?"
"He has sensitiveness and talent — — "
"Wait now! What has he actually done in the art line? Has he done one first-class picture or — sketch, d' you call it? Or one poem, or played the piano, or anything except gas about what he's going to do?"
She looked thoughtful.
"Then it's a hundred to one shot that he never will. Way I understand it, even these fellows that do something pretty good at home and get to go to art school, there ain't more than one out of ten of 'em, maybe one out of a hundred, that ever get above grinding out a bum living — about as artistic as plumbing. And when it comes down to this tailor, why, can't you see — you that take on so about psychology — can't you see that it's just by contrast with folks like Doc McGanum or Lym Cass that this fellow seems artistic? Suppose you'd met up with him first in one of these reg'lar New York studios! You wouldn't notice him any more 'n a rabbit!"