"I can't stand it — I can't bear to realize that they've been saying all these things while I've been going about so happily and liking them. I wonder if you ought to have told me? It will make me self-conscious."
"I wonder the same thing. Only answer I can get is the old saw about knowledge being power. And some day you'll see how absorbing it is to have power, even here; to control the town — — Oh, I'm a crank. But I do like to see things moving."
"It hurts. It makes these people seem so beastly and treacherous, when I've been perfectly natural with them. But let's have it all. What did they say about my Chinese house-warming party?"
"Why, uh — — "
"Go on. Or I'll make up worse things than anything you can tell me."
"They did enjoy it. But I guess some of them felt you were showing off — pretending that your husband is richer than he is."
"I can't — — Their meanness of mind is beyond any horrors I could imagine. They really thought that I — — And you want to 'reform' people like that when dynamite is so cheap? Who dared to say that? The rich or the poor?"
"Fairly well assorted."
"Can't they at least understand me well enough to see that though I might be affected and culturine, at least I simply couldn't commit that other kind of vulgarity? If they must know, you may tell them, with my compliments, that Will makes about four thousand a year, and the party cost half of what they probably thought it did. Chinese things are not very expensive, and I made my own costume — — "
"Stop it! Stop beating me! I know all that. What they meant was: they felt you were starting dangerous competition by giving a party such as most people here can't afford. Four thousand is a pretty big income for this town."
"I never thought of starting competition. Will you believe that it was in all love and friendliness that I tried to give them the gayest party I could? It was foolish; it was childish and noisy. But I did mean it so well."
"I know, of course. And it certainly is unfair of them to make fun of your having that Chinese food — chow men, was it? — and to laugh about your wearing those pretty trousers — — "
Carol sprang up, whimpering, "Oh, they didn't do that! They didn't poke fun at my feast, that I ordered so carefully for them! And my little Chinese costume that I was so happy making — I made it secretly, to surprise them. And they've been ridiculing it, all this while!"
She was huddled on the couch.
Vida was stroking her hair, muttering, "I shouldn't — — "
Shrouded in shame, Carol did not know when Vida slipped away. The clock's bell, at half past five, aroused her. "I must get hold of myself before Will comes. I hope he never knows what a fool his wife is. . . . Frozen, sneering, horrible hearts."
Like a very small, very lonely girl she trudged up-stairs, slow step by step, her feet dragging, her hand on the rail. It was not her husband to whom she wanted to run for protection — it was her father, her smiling understanding father, dead these twelve years.
Kennicott was yawning, stretched in the largest chair, between the radiator and a small kerosene stove.
Cautiously, "Will dear, I wonder if the people here don't criticize me sometimes? They must. I mean: if they ever do, you mustn't let it bother you."
"Criticize you? Lord, I should say not. They all keep telling me you're the swellest girl they ever saw."
"Well, I've just fancied — — The merchants probably think I'm too fussy about shopping. I'm afraid I bore Mr. Dashaway and Mr. Howland and Mr. Ludelmeyer."
"I can tell you how that is. I didn't want to speak of it but since you've brought it up: Chet Dashaway probably resents the fact that you got this new furniture down in the Cities instead of here. I didn't want to raise any objection at the time but — — After all, I make my money here and they naturally expect me to spend it here."
"If Mr. Dashaway will kindly tell me how any civilized person can furnish a room out of the mortuary pieces that he calls — — " She remembered. She said meekly, "But I understand."
"And Howland and Ludelmeyer — — Oh, you've probably handed 'em a few roasts for the bum stocks they carry, when you just meant to jolly 'em. But rats, what do we care! This is an independent town, not like these Eastern holes where you have to watch your step all the time, and live up to fool demands and social customs, and a lot of old tabbies always busy criticizing. Everybody's free here to do what he wants to." He said it with a flourish, and Carol perceived that he believed it. She turned her breath of fury into a yawn.
"By the way, Carrie, while we're talking of this: Of course I like to keep independent, and I don't believe in this business of binding yourself to trade with the man that trades with you unless you really want to, but same time: I'd be just as glad if you dealt with Jenson or Ludelmeyer as much as you ran, instead of Howland & Gould, who go to Dr. Gould every last time, and the whole tribe of 'em the same way. I don't see why I should be paying out my good money for groceries and having them pass it on to Terry Gould!"
"I've gone to Howland & Gould because they're better, and cleaner."
"I know. I don't mean cut them out entirely. Course Jenson is tricky — give you short weight — and Ludelmeyer is a shiftless old Dutch hog. But same time, I mean let's keep the trade in the family whenever it is convenient, see how I mean?"
"Well, guess it's about time to turn in."
He yawned, went out to look at the thermometer, slammed the door, patted her head, unbuttoned his waistcoat, yawned, wound the clock, went down to look at the furnace, yawned, and clumped up-stairs to bed, casually scratching his thick woolen undershirt.
Till he bawled, "Aren't you ever coming up to bed?" she sat unmoving.
SHE had tripped into the meadow to teach the lambs a pretty educational dance and found that the lambs were wolves. There was no way out between their pressing gray shoulders. She was surrounded by fangs and sneering eyes.
She could not go on enduring the hidden derision. She wanted to flee. She wanted to hide in the generous indifference of cities. She practised saying to Kennicott, "Think perhaps I'll run down to St. Paul for a few days." But she could not trust herself to say it carelessly; could not abide his certain questioning.
Reform the town? All she wanted was to be tolerated!
She could not look directly at people. She flushed and winced before citizens who a week ago had been amusing objects of study, and in their good-mornings she heard a cruel sniggering.