She huddled over folded hands like a temple virgin shivering on her knees before the thin warmth of a brazier. She could not answer.
Kennicott rose quickly, sat on the couch, took both her hands. "Suppose he fails — as he will! Suppose he goes back to tailoring, and you're his wife. Is that going to be this artistic life you've been thinking about? He's in some bum shack, pressing pants all day, or stooped over sewing, and having to be polite to any grouch that blows in and jams a dirty stinking old suit in his face and says, 'Here you, fix this, and be blame quick about it.' He won't even have enough savvy to get him a big shop. He'll pike along doing his own work — unless you, his wife, go help him, go help him in the shop, and stand over a table all day, pushing a big heavy iron. Your complexion will look fine after about fifteen years of baking that way, won't it! And you'll be humped over like an old hag. And probably you'll live in one room back of the shop. And then at night — oh, you'll have your artist — sure! He'll come in stinking of gasoline, and cranky from hard work, and hinting around that if it hadn't been for you, he'd of gone East and been a great artist. Sure! And you'll be entertaining his relatives — — Talk about Uncle Whit! You'll be having some old Axel Axelberg coming in with manure on his boots and sitting down to supper in his socks and yelling at you, 'Hurry up now, you vimmin make me sick!' Yes, and you'll have a squalling brat every year, tugging at you while you press clothes, and you won't love 'em like you do Hugh up-stairs, all downy and asleep — — "
"Please! Not any more!"
Her face was on his knee.
He bent to kiss her neck. "I don't want to be unfair. I guess love is a great thing, all right. But think it would stand much of that kind of stuff? Oh, honey, am I so bad? Can't you like me at all? I've — I've been so fond of you!"
She snatched up his hand, she kissed it. Presently she sobbed, "I won't ever see him again. I can't, now. The hot living-room behind the tailor shop — — I don't love him enough for that. And you are — — Even if I were sure of him, sure he was the real thing, I don't think I could actually leave you. This marriage, it weaves people together. It's not easy to break, even when it ought to be broken."
"And do you want to break it?"
He lifted her, carried her up-stairs, laid her on her bed, turned to the door.
"Come kiss me," she whimpered.
He kissed her lightly and slipped away. For an hour she heard him moving about his room, lighting a cigar, drumming with his knuckles on a chair. She felt that he was a bulwark between her and the darkness that grew thicker as the delayed storm came down in sleet.
He was cheery and more casual than ever at breakfast. All day she tried to devise a way of giving Erik up. Telephone? The village central would unquestionably "listen in." A letter? It might be found. Go to see him? Impossible. That evening Kennicott gave her, without comment, an envelope. The letter was signed "E. V."
I know I can't do anything but make trouble for you, I think. I am going to Minneapolis tonight and from there as soon as I can either to New York or Chicago. I will do as big things as I can. I — I can't write I love you too much — God keep you.
Until she heard the whistle which told her that the Minneapolis train was leaving town, she kept herself from thinking, from moving. Then it was all over. She had no plan nor desire for anything.
When she caught Kennicott looking at her over his newspaper she fled to his arms, thrusting the paper aside, and for the first time in years they were lovers. But she knew that she still had no plan in life, save always to go along the same streets, past the same people, to the same shops.
A week after Erik's going the maid startled her by announcing, "There's a Mr. Valborg down-stairs say he vant to see you."
She was conscious of the maid's interested stare, angry at this shattering of the calm in which she had hidden. She crept down, peeped into the living-room. It was not Erik Valborg who stood there; it was a small, gray-bearded, yellow-faced man in mucky boots, canvas jacket, and red mittens. He glowered at her with shrewd red eyes.
"You de doc's wife?"
"I'm Adolph Valborg, from up by Jefferson. I'm Erik's father."
"Oh!" He was a monkey-faced little man, and not gentle.
"What you done wit' my son?"
"I don't think I understand you."
"I t'ink you're going to understand before I get t'rough! Where is he?"
"Why, really — — I presume that he's in Minneapolis."
"You presume!" He looked through her with a contemptuousness such as she could not have imagined. Only an insane contortion of spelling could portray his lyric whine, his mangled consonants. He clamored, "Presume! Dot's a fine word! I don't want no fine words and I don't want no more lies! I want to know what you KNOW!"
"See here, Mr. Valborg, you may stop this bullying right now. I'm not one of your farmwomen. I don't know where your son is, and there's no reason why I should know." Her defiance ran out in face of his immense flaxen stolidity. He raised his fist, worked up his anger with the gesture, and sneered:
"You dirty city women wit' your fine ways and fine dresses! A father come here trying to save his boy from wickedness, and you call him a bully! By God, I don't have to take nothin' off you nor your husband! I ain't one of your hired men. For one time a woman like you is going to hear de trut' about what you are, and no fine city words to it, needer."
"Really, Mr. Valborg — — "
"What you done wit' him? Heh? I'll yoost tell you what you done! He was a good boy, even if he was a damn fool. I want him back on de farm. He don't make enough money tailoring. And I can't get me no hired man! I want to take him back on de farm. And you butt in and fool wit' him and make love wit' him, and get him to run away!"
"You are lying! It's not true that — — It's not true, and if it were, you would have no right to speak like this."
"Don't talk foolish. I know. Ain't I heard from a fellow dot live right here in town how you been acting wit' de boy? I know what you done! Walking wit' him in de country! Hiding in de woods wit' him! Yes and I guess you talk about religion in de woods! Sure! Women like you — you're worse dan street-walkers! Rich women like you, wit' fine husbands and no decent work to do — and me, look at my hands, look how I work, look at those hands! But you, oh God no, you mustn't work, you're too fine to do decent work. You got to play wit' young fellows, younger as you are, laughing and rolling around and acting like de animals! You let my son alone, d' you hear?" He was shaking his fist in her face. She could smell the manure and sweat. "It ain't no use talkin' to women like you. Get no trut' out of you. But next time I go by your husband!"
He was marching into the hall. Carol flung herself on him, her clenching hand on his hayseed-dusty shoulder. "You horrible old man, you've always tried to turn Erik into a slave, to fatten your pocketbook! You've sneered at him, and overworked him, and probably you've succeeded in preventing his ever rising above your muck-heap! And now because you can't drag him back, you come here to vent — — Go tell my husband, go tell him, and don't blame me when he kills you, when my husband kills you — he will kill you — — "
The man grunted, looked at her impassively, said one word, and walked out.
She heard the word very plainly.
She did not quite reach the couch. Her knees gave way, she pitched forward. She heard her mind saying, "You haven't fainted. This is ridiculous. You're simply dramatizing yourself. Get up." But she could not move. When Kennicott arrived she was lying on the couch. His step quickened. "What's happened, Carrie? You haven't got a bit of blood in your face."
She clutched his arm. "You've got to be sweet to me, and kind! I'm going to California — mountains, sea. Please don't argue about it, because I'm going."
Quietly, "All right. We'll go. You and I. Leave the kid here with Aunt Bessie."
"Well yes, just as soon as we can get away. Now don't talk any more. Just imagine you've already started." He smoothed her hair, and not till after supper did he continue: "I meant it about California. But I think we better wait three weeks or so, till I get hold of some young fellow released from the medical corps to take my practice. And if people are gossiping, you don't want to give them a chance by running away. Can you stand it and face 'em for three weeks or so?"
"Yes," she said emptily.