"'So you like my looks, eh?' I says, kind of innocent.
"'What difference does that make? Want you to saw that wood before Saturday,' he says, real sharp. Common workman going and getting fresh with a fifth of a million dollars all walking around in a hand-me-down fur coat!
"'Here's the difference it makes,' I says, just to devil him. 'How do you know I like YOUR looks?' Maybe he didn't look sore! 'Nope,' I says, thinking it all over, 'I don't like your application for a loan. Take it to another bank, only there ain't any,' I says, and I walks off on him.
"Sure. Probably I was surly — and foolish. But I figured there had to be ONE man in town independent enough to sass the banker!"
He hitched out of his chair, made coffee, gave Carol a cup, and talked on, half defiant and half apologetic, half wistful for friendliness and half amused by her surprise at the discovery that there was a proletarian philosophy.
At the door, she hinted:
"Mr. Bjornstam, if you were I, would you worry when people thought you were affected?"
"Huh? Kick 'em in the face! Say, if I were a sea-gull, and all over silver, think I'd care what a pack of dirty seals thought about my flying?"
It was not the wind at her back, it was the thrust of Bjornstam's scorn which carried her through town. She faced Juanita Haydock, cocked her head at Maud Dyer's brief nod, and came home to Bea radiant. She telephoned Vida Sherwin to "run over this evening." She lustily played Tschaikowsky — the virile chords an echo of the red laughing philosopher of the tar-paper shack.
(When she hinted to Vida, "Isn't there a man here who amuses himself by being irreverent to the village gods — Bjornstam, some such a name?" the reform-leader said "Bjornstam? Oh yes. Fixes things. He's awfully impertinent.")
Kennicott had returned at midnight. At breakfast he said four several times that he had missed her every moment.
On her way to market Sam Clark hailed her, "The top o' the mornin' to yez! Going to stop and pass the time of day mit Sam'l? Warmer, eh? What'd the doc's thermometer say it was? Say, you folks better come round and visit with us, one of these evenings. Don't be so dog-gone proud, staying by yourselves."
Champ Perry the pioneer, wheat-buyer at the elevator, stopped her in the post-office, held her hand in his withered paws, peered at her with faded eyes, and chuckled, "You are so fresh and blooming, my dear. Mother was saying t'other day that a sight of you was better 'n a dose of medicine."
In the Bon Ton Store she found Guy Pollock tentatively buying a modest gray scarf. "We haven't seen you for so long," she said. "Wouldn't you like to come in and play cribbage, some evening?" As though he meant it, Pollock begged, "May I, really?"
While she was purchasing two yards of malines the vocal Raymie Wutherspoon tiptoed up to her, his long sallow face bobbing, and he besought, "You've just got to come back to my department and see a pair of patent leather slippers I set aside for you."
In a manner of more than sacerdotal reverence he unlaced her boots, tucked her skirt about her ankles, slid on the slippers. She took them.
"You're a good salesman," she said.
"I'm not a salesman at all! I just like elegant things. All this is so inartistic." He indicated with a forlornly waving hand the shelves of shoe-boxes, the seat of thin wood perforated in rosettes, the display of shoe-trees and tin boxes of blacking, the lithograph of a smirking young woman with cherry cheeks who proclaimed in the exalted poetry of advertising, "My tootsies never got hep to what pedal perfection was till I got a pair of clever classy Cleopatra Shoes."
"But sometimes," Raymie sighed, "there is a pair of dainty little shoes like these, and I set them aside for some one who will appreciate. When I saw these I said right away, 'Wouldn't it be nice if they fitted Mrs. Kennicott,' and I meant to speak to you first chance I had. I haven't forgotten our jolly talks at Mrs. Gurrey's!"
That evening Guy Pollock came in and, though Kennicott instantly impressed him into a cribbage game, Carol was happy again.
She did not, in recovering something of her buoyancy, forget her determination to begin the liberalizing of Gopher Prairie by the easy and agreeable propaganda of teaching Kennicott to enjoy reading poetry in the lamplight. The campaign was delayed. Twice he suggested that they call on neighbors; once he was in the country. The fourth evening he yawned pleasantly, stretched, and inquired, "Well, what'll we do tonight? Shall we go to the movies?"
"I know exactly what we're going to do. Now don't ask questions! Come and sit down by the table. There, are you comfy? Lean back and forget you're a practical man, and listen to me."
It may be that she had been influenced by the managerial Vida Sherwin; certainly she sounded as though she was selling culture. But she dropped it when she sat on the couch, her chin in her hands, a volume of Yeats on her knees, and read aloud.
Instantly she was released from the homely comfort of a prairie town. She was in the world of lonely things — the flutter of twilight linnets, the aching call of gulls along a shore to which the netted foam crept out of darkness, the island of Aengus and the elder gods and the eternal glories that never were, tall kings and women girdled with crusted gold, the woful incessant chanting and the — —
"Heh-cha-cha!" coughed Dr. Kennicott. She stopped. She remembered that he was the sort of person who chewed tobacco. She glared, while he uneasily petitioned, "That's great stuff. Study it in college? I like poetry fine — James Whitcomb Riley and some of Longfellow — this 'Hiawatha.' Gosh, I wish I could appreciate that highbrow art stuff. But I guess I'm too old a dog to learn new tricks."
With pity for his bewilderment, and a certain desire to giggle, she consoled him, "Then let's try some Tennyson. You've read him?"
"Tennyson? You bet. Read him in school. There's that:
And let there be no (what is it?) of farewell
When I put out to sea,
But let the — —
Well, I don't remember all of it but — — Oh, sure! And there's that 'I met a little country boy who — — ' I don't remember exactly how it goes, but the chorus ends up, 'We are seven.'"
"Yes. Well — — Shall we try 'The Idylls of the King?' They're so full of color."
"Go to it. Shoot." But he hastened to shelter himself behind a cigar.
She was not transported to Camelot. She read with an eye cocked on him, and when she saw how much he was suffering she ran to him, kissed his forehead, cried, "You poor forced tube-rose that wants to be a decent turnip!"
"Look here now, that ain't — — "
"Anyway, I sha'n't torture you any longer."
She could not quite give up. She read Kipling, with a great deal of emphasis:
There's a REGIMENT a-COMING down the GRAND Trunk ROAD.
He tapped his foot to the rhythm; he looked normal and reassured. But when he complimented her, "That was fine. I don't know but what you can elocute just as good as Ella Stowbody," she banged the book and suggested that they were not too late for the nine o'clock show at the movies.
That was her last effort to harvest the April wind, to teach divine unhappiness by a correspondence course, to buy the lilies of Avalon and the sunsets of Cockaigne in tin cans at Ole Jenson's Grocery.
But the fact is that at the motion-pictures she discovered herself laughing as heartily as Kennicott at the humor of an actor who stuffed spaghetti down a woman's evening frock. For a second she loathed her laughter; mourned for the day when on her hill by the Mississippi she had walked the battlements with queens. But the celebrated cinema jester's conceit of dropping toads into a soup-plate flung her into unwilling tittering, and the afterglow faded, the dead queens fled through darkness.