They ate enormously. Carol had a suspicion that the thriftier housewives made the afternoon treat do for evening supper.
She tried to get back into the current. She edged over to Mrs. McGanum. Chunky, amiable, young Mrs. McGanum with her breast and arms of a milkmaid, and her loud delayed laugh which burst startlingly from a sober face, was the daughter of old Dr. Westlake, and the wife of Westlake's partner, Dr. McGanum. Kennicott asserted that Westlake and McGanum and their contaminated families were tricky, but Carol had found them gracious. She asked for friendliness by crying to Mrs. McGanum, "How is the baby's throat now?" and she was attentive while Mrs. McGanum rocked and knitted and placidly described symptoms.
Vida Sherwin came in after school, with Miss Ethel Villets, the town librarian. Miss Sherwin's optimistic presence gave Carol more confidence. She talked. She informed the circle "I drove almost down to Wahkeenyan with Will, a few days ago. Isn't the country lovely! And I do admire the Scandinavian farmers down there so: their big red barns and silos and milking-machines and everything. Do you all know that lonely Lutheran church, with the tin-covered spire, that stands out alone on a hill? It's so bleak; somehow it seems so brave. I do think the Scandinavians are the hardiest and best people — — "
"Oh, do you THINK so?" protested Mrs. Jackson Elder. "My husband says the Svenskas that work in the planing-mill are perfectly terrible — so silent and cranky, and so selfish, the way they keep demanding raises. If they had their way they'd simply ruin the business."
"Yes, and they're simply GHASTLY hired girls!" wailed Mrs. Dave Dyer. "I swear, I work myself to skin and bone trying to please my hired girls — when I can get them! I do everything in the world for them. They can have their gentleman friends call on them in the kitchen any time, and they get just the same to eat as we do, if there's, any left over, and I practically never jump on them."
Juanita Haydock rattled, "They're ungrateful, all that class of people. I do think the domestic problem is simply becoming awful. I don't know what the country's coming to, with these Scandahoofian clodhoppers demanding every cent you can save, and so ignorant and impertinent, and on my word, demanding bath-tubs and everything — as if they weren't mighty good and lucky at home if they got a bath in the wash-tub."
They were off, riding hard. Carol thought of Bea and waylaid them:
"But isn't it possibly the fault of the mistresses if the maids are ungrateful? For generations we've given them the leavings of food, and holes to live in. I don't want to boast, but I must say I don't have much trouble with Bea. She's so friendly. The Scandinavians are sturdy and honest — — "
Mrs. Dave Dyer snapped, "Honest? Do you call it honest to hold us up for every cent of pay they can get? I can't say that I've had any of them steal anything (though you might call it stealing to eat so much that a roast of beef hardly lasts three days), but just the same I don't intend to let them think they can put anything over on ME! I always make them pack and unpack their trunks down-stairs, right under my eyes, and then I know they aren't being tempted to dishonesty by any slackness on MY part!"
"How much do the maids get here?" Carol ventured.
Mrs. B. J. Gougerling, wife of the banker, stated in a shocked manner, "Any place from three-fifty to five-fifty a week! I know positively that Mrs. Clark, after swearing that she wouldn't weaken and encourage them in their outrageous demands, went and paid five-fifty — think of it! practically a dollar a day for unskilled work and, of course, her food and room and a chance to do her own washing right in with the rest of the wash. HOW MUCH DO YOU PAY, Mrs. KENNICOTT?"
"Yes! How much do you pay?" insisted half a dozen.
"W-why, I pay six a week," she feebly confessed.
They gasped. Juanita protested, "Don't you think it's hard on the rest of us when you pay so much?" Juanita's demand was reinforced by the universal glower.
Carol was angry. "I don't care! A maid has one of the hardest jobs on earth. She works from ten to eighteen hours a day. She has to wash slimy dishes and dirty clothes. She tends the children and runs to the door with wet chapped hands and — — "
Mrs. Dave Dyer broke into Carol's peroration with a furious, "That's all very well, but believe me, I do those things myself when I'm without a maid — and that's a good share of the time for a person that isn't willing to yield and pay exorbitant wages!"
Carol was retorting, "But a maid does it for strangers, and all she gets out of it is the pay — — "
Their eyes were hostile. Four of them were talking at once. Vida Sherwin's dictatorial voice cut through, took control of the revolution:
"Tut, tut, tut, tut! What angry passions — and what an idiotic discussion! All of you getting too serious. Stop it! Carol Kennicott, you're probably right, but you're too much ahead of the times. Juanita, quit looking so belligerent. What is this, a card party or a hen fight? Carol, you stop admiring yourself as the Joan of Arc of the hired girls, or I'll spank you. You come over here and talk libraries with Ethel Villets. Boooooo! If there's any more pecking, I'll take charge of the hen roost myself!"
They all laughed artificially, and Carol obediently "talked libraries."
A small-town bungalow, the wives of a village doctor and a village dry-goods merchant, a provincial teacher, a colloquial brawl over paying a servant a dollar more a week. Yet this insignificance echoed cellar-plots and cabinet meetings and labor conferences in Persia and Prussia, Rome and Boston, and the orators who deemed themselves international leaders were but the raised voices of a billion Juanitas denouncing a million Carols, with a hundred thousand Vida Sherwins trying to shoo away the storm.
Carol felt guilty. She devoted herself to admiring the spinsterish Miss Villets — and immediately committed another offense against the laws of decency.
"We haven't seen you at the library yet," Miss Villets reproved.
"I've wanted to run in so much but I've been getting settled and — — I'll probably come in so often you'll get tired of me! I hear you have such a nice library."
"There are many who like it. We have two thousand more books than Wakamin."
"Isn't that fine. I'm sure you are largely responsible. I've had some experience, in St. Paul."
"So I have been informed. Not that I entirely approve of library methods in these large cities. So careless, letting tramps and all sorts of dirty persons practically sleep in the reading-rooms."
"I know, but the poor souls — — Well, I'm sure you will agree with me in one thing: The chief task of a librarian is to get people to read."
"You feel so? My feeling, Mrs. Kennicott, and I am merely quoting the librarian of a very large college, is that the first duty of the CONSCIENTIOUS librarian is to preserve the books."
"Oh!" Carol repented her "Oh." Miss Villets stiffened, and attacked:
"It may be all very well in cities, where they have unlimited funds, to let nasty children ruin books and just deliberately tear them up, and fresh young men take more books out than they are entitled to by the regulations, but I'm never going to permit it in this library!"
"What if some children are destructive? They learn to read. Books are cheaper than minds."
"Nothing is cheaper than the minds of some of these children that come in and bother me simply because their mothers don't keep them home where they belong. Some librarians may choose to be so wishy-washy and turn their libraries into nursing-homes and kindergartens, but as long as I'm in charge, the Gopher Prairie library is going to be quiet and decent, and the books well kept!"
Carol saw that the others were listening, waiting for her to be objectionable. She flinched before their dislike. She hastened to smile in agreement with Miss Villets, to glance publicly at her wrist-watch, to warble that it was "so late — have to hurry home — husband — such nice party — maybe you were right about maids, prejudiced because Bea so nice — such perfectly divine angel's-food, Mrs. Haydock must give me the recipe — good-by, such happy party — — "
She walked home. She reflected, "It was my fault. I was touchy. And I opposed them so much. Only — — I can't! I can't be one of them if I must damn all the maids toiling in filthy kitchens, all the ragged hungry children. And these women are to be my arbiters, the rest of my life!"
She ignored Bea's call from the kitchen; she ran up-stairs to the unfrequented guest-room; she wept in terror, her body a pale arc as she knelt beside a cumbrous black-walnut bed, beside a puffy mattress covered with a red quilt, in a shuttered and airless room.