Carol was afraid of him. Far from protesting when he set his mongrel on a kitten, she worked hard at not seeing him.
The Kennicott garage was a shed littered with paint-cans, tools, a lawn-mower, and ancient wisps of hay. Above it was a loft which Cy Bogart and Earl Haydock, young brother of Harry, used as a den, for smoking, hiding from whippings, and planning secret societies. They climbed to it by a ladder on the alley side of the shed.
This morning of late January, two or three weeks after Vida's revelations, Carol had gone into the stable-garage to find a hammer. Snow softened her step. She heard voices in the loft above her:
"Ah gee, lez — oh, lez go down the lake and swipe some mushrats out of somebody's traps," Cy was yawning.
"And get our ears beat off!" grumbled Earl Haydock.
"Gosh, these cigarettes are dandy. 'Member when we were just kids, and used to smoke corn-silk and hayseed?"
"Say Earl, ma says if you chew tobacco you get consumption."
"Aw rats, your old lady is a crank."
"Yuh, that's so." Pause. "But she says she knows a fella that did."
"Aw, gee whiz, didn't Doc Kennicott used to chew tobacco all the time before he married this-here girl from the Cities? He used to spit — -Gee! Some shot! He could hit a tree ten feet off."
This was news to the girl from the Cities.
"Say, how is she?" continued Earl.
"Huh? How's who?"
"You know who I mean, smarty."
A tussle, a thumping of loose boards, silence, weary narration from Cy:
"Mrs. Kennicott? Oh, she's all right, I guess." Relief to Carol, below. "She gimme a hunk o' cake, one time. But Ma says she's stuck-up as hell. Ma's always talking about her. Ma says if Mrs. Kennicott thought as much about the doc as she does about her clothes, the doc wouldn't look so peaked."
"Yuh. Juanita's always talking about her, too," from Earl. "She says Mrs. Kennicott thinks she knows it all. Juanita says she has to laugh till she almost busts every time she sees Mrs. Kennicott peerading along the street with that 'take a look — I'm a swell skirt' way she's got. But gosh, I don't pay no attention to Juanita. She's meaner 'n a crab."
"Ma was telling somebody that she heard that Mrs. Kennicott claimed she made forty dollars a week when she was on some job in the Cities, and Ma says she knows posolutely that she never made but eighteen a week — Ma says that when she's lived here a while she won't go round making a fool of herself, pulling that bighead stuff on folks that know a whole lot more than she does. They're all laughing up their sleeves at her."
"Say, jever notice how Mrs. Kennicott fusses around the house? Other evening when I was coming over here, she'd forgot to pull down the curtain, and I watched her for ten minutes. Jeeze, you'd 'a' died laughing. She was there all alone, and she must 'a' spent five minutes getting a picture straight. It was funny as hell the way she'd stick out her finger to straighten the picture — deedle-dee, see my tunnin' 'ittle finger, oh my, ain't I cute, what a fine long tail my cat's got!"
"But say, Earl, she's some good-looker, just the same, and O Ignatz! the glad rags she must of bought for her wedding. Jever notice these low-cut dresses and these thin shimmy-shirts she wears? I had a good squint at 'em when they were out on the line with the wash. And some ankles she's got, heh?"
Then Carol fled.
In her innocence she had not known that the whole town could discuss even her garments, her body. She felt that she was being dragged naked down Main Street.
The moment it was dusk she pulled down the window-shades, all the shades flush with the sill, but beyond them she felt moist fleering eyes.
She remembered, and tried to forget, and remembered more sharply the vulgar detail of her husband's having observed the ancient customs of the land by chewing tobacco. She would have preferred a prettier vice — gambling or a mistress. For these she might have found a luxury of forgiveness. She could not remember any fascinatingly wicked hero of fiction who chewed tobacco. She asserted that it proved him to be a man of the bold free West. She tried to align him with the hairy-chested heroes of the motion-pictures. She curled on the couch a pallid softness in the twilight, and fought herself, and lost the battle. Spitting did not identify him with rangers riding the buttes; it merely bound him to Gopher Prairie — to Nat Hicks the tailor and Bert Tybee the bartender.
"But he gave it up for me. Oh, what does it matter! We're all filthy in some things. I think of myself as so superior, but I do eat and digest, I do wash my dirty paws and scratch. I'm not a cool slim goddess on a column. There aren't any! He gave it up for me. He stands by me, believing that every one loves me. He's the Rock of Ages — in a storm of meanness that's driving me mad . . . it will drive me mad."
All evening she sang Scotch ballads to Kennicott, and when she noticed that he was chewing an unlighted cigar she smiled maternally at his secret.
She could not escape asking (in the exact words and mental intonations which a thousand million women, dairy wenches and mischief-making queens, had used before her, and which a million million women will know hereafter), "Was it all a horrible mistake, my marrying him?" She quieted the doubt — without answering it.
Kennicott had taken her north to Lac-qui-Meurt, in the Big Woods. It was the entrance to a Chippewa Indian reservation, a sandy settlement among Norway pines on the shore of a huge snow-glaring lake. She had her first sight of his mother, except the glimpse at the wedding. Mrs. Kennicott had a hushed and delicate breeding which dignified her woodeny over-scrubbed cottage with its worn hard cushions in heavy rockers. She had never lost the child's miraculous power of wonder. She asked questions about books and cities. She murmured:
"Will is a dear hard-working boy but he's inclined to be too serious, and you've taught him how to play. Last night I heard you both laughing about the old Indian basket-seller, and I just lay in bed and enjoyed your happiness."
Carol forgot her misery-hunting in this solidarity of family life. She could depend upon them; she was not battling alone. Watching Mrs. Kennicott flit about the kitchen she was better able to translate Kennicott himself. He was matter-of-fact, yes, and incurably mature. He didn't really play; he let Carol play with him. But he had his mother's genius for trusting, her disdain for prying, her sure integrity.
From the two days at Lac-qui-Meurt Carol drew confidence in herself, and she returned to Gopher Prairie in a throbbing calm like those golden drugged seconds when, because he is for an instant free from pain, a sick man revels in living.
A bright hard winter day, the wind shrill, black and silver clouds booming across the sky, everything in panicky motion during the brief light. They struggled against the surf of wind, through deep snow. Kennicott was cheerful. He hailed Loren Wheeler, "Behave yourself while I been away?" The editor bellowed, "B' gosh you stayed so long that all your patients have got well!" and importantly took notes for the Dauntless about their journey. Jackson Elder cried, "Hey, folks! How's tricks up North?" Mrs. McGanum waved to them from her porch.
"They're glad to see us. We mean something here. These people are satisfied. Why can't I be? But can I sit back all my life and be satisfied with 'Hey, folks'? They want shouts on Main Street, and I want violins in a paneled room. Why — — ?"