SHE tried, more from loyalty than from desire, to call upon the Perrys on a November evening when Kennicott was away. They were not at home.
Like a child who has no one to play with she loitered through the dark hall. She saw a light under an office door. She knocked. To the person who opened she murmured, "Do you happen to know where the Perrys are?" She realized that it was Guy Pollock.
"I'm awfully sorry, Mrs. Kennicott, but I don't know. Won't you come in and wait for them?"
"W-why——" she observed, as she reflected that in Gopher Prairie it is not decent to call on a man; as she decided that no, really, she wouldn't go in; and as she went in.
"I didn't know your office was up here."
"Yes, office, town-house, and chateau in Picardy. But you can't see the chateau and town-house (next to the Duke of Sutherland's). They're beyond that inner door. They are a cot and a wash-stand and my other suit and the blue crepe tie you said you liked."
"You remember my saying that?"
"Of course. I always shall. Please try this chair."
She glanced about the rusty office—gaunt stove, shelves of tan law-books, desk-chair filled with newspapers so long sat upon that they were in holes and smudged to grayness. There were only two things which suggested Guy Pollock. On the green felt of the table-desk, between legal blanks and a clotted inkwell, was a cloissone vase. On a swing shelf was a row of books unfamiliar to Gopher Prairie: Mosher editions of the poets, black and red German novels, a Charles Lamb in crushed levant.
Guy did not sit down. He quartered the office, a grayhound on the scent; a grayhound with glasses tilted forward on his thin nose, and a silky indecisive brown mustache. He had a golf jacket of jersey, worn through at the creases in the sleeves. She noted that he did not apologize for it, as Kennicott would have done.
He made conversation: "I didn't know you were a bosom friend of the Perrys. Champ is the salt of the earth but somehow I can't imagine him joining you in symbolic dancing, or making improvements on the Diesel engine."
"No. He's a dear soul, bless him, but he belongs in the National Museum, along with General Grant's sword, and I'm——Oh, I suppose I'm seeking for a gospel that will evangelize Gopher Prairie."
"Really? Evangelize it to what?"
"To anything that's definite. Seriousness or frivolousness or both. I wouldn't care whether it was a laboratory or a carnival. But it's merely safe. Tell me, Mr. Pollock, what is the matter with Gopher Prairie?"
"Is anything the matter with it? Isn't there perhaps something the matter with you and me? (May I join you in the honor of having something the matter?)"
"(Yes, thanks.) No, I think it's the town."
"Because they enjoy skating more than biology?"
"But I'm not only more interested in biology than the Jolly Seventeen, but also in skating! I'll skate with them, or slide, or throw snowballs, just as gladly as talk with you."
("Yes!) But they want to stay home and embroider."
"Perhaps. I'm not defending the town. It's merely——I'm a confirmed doubter of myself. (Probably I'm conceited about my lack of conceit!) Anyway, Gopher Prairie isn't particularly bad. It's like all villages in all countries. Most places that have lost the smell of earth but not yet acquired the smell of patchouli—or of factory-smoke—are just as suspicious and righteous. I wonder if the small town isn't, with some lovely exceptions, a social appendix? Some day these dull market-towns may be as obsolete as monasteries. I can imagine the farmer and his local store-manager going by monorail, at the end of the day, into a city more charming than any William Morris Utopia—music, a university, clubs for loafers like me. (Lord, how I'd like to have a real club!)"
She asked impulsively, "You, why do you stay here?"
"I have the Village Virus."
"It sounds dangerous."
"It is. More dangerous than the cancer that will certainly get me at fifty unless I stop this smoking. The Village Virus is the germ which—it's extraordinarily like the hook-worm—it infects ambitious people who stay too long in the provinces. You'll find it epidemic among lawyers and doctors and ministers and college-bred merchants—all these people who have had a glimpse of the world that thinks and laughs, but have returned to their swamp. I'm a perfect example. But I sha'n't pester you with my dolors."
"You won't. And do sit down, so I can see you."
He dropped into the shrieking desk-chair. He looked squarely at her; she was conscious of the pupils of his eyes; of the fact that he was a man, and lonely. They were embarrassed. They elaborately glanced away, and were relieved as he went on:
"The diagnosis of my Village Virus is simple enough. I was born in an Ohio town about the same size as Gopher Prairie, and much less friendly. It'd had more generations in which to form an oligarchy of respectability. Here, a stranger is taken in if he is correct, if he likes hunting and motoring and God and our Senator. There, we didn't take in even our own till we had contemptuously got used to them. It was a red-brick Ohio town, and the trees made it damp, and it smelled of rotten apples. The country wasn't like our lakes and prairie. There were small stuffy corn-fields and brick-yards and greasy oil-wells.
"I went to a denominational college and learned that since dictating the Bible, and hiring a perfect race of ministers to explain it, God has never done much but creep around and try to catch us disobeying it. From college I went to New York, to the Columbia Law School. And for four years I lived. Oh, I won't rhapsodize about New York. It was dirty and noisy and breathless and ghastly expensive. But compared with the moldy academy in which I had been smothered——! I went to symphonies twice a week. I saw Irving and Terry and Duse and Bernhardt, from the top gallery. I walked in Gramercy Park. And I read, oh, everything.
"Through a cousin I learned that Julius Flickerbaugh was sick and needed a partner. I came here. Julius got well. He didn't like my way of loafing five hours and then doing my work (really not so badly) in one. We parted.
"When I first came here I swore I'd 'keep up my interests.' Very lofty! I read Browning, and went to Minneapolis for the theaters. I thought I was 'keeping up.' But I guess the Village Virus had me already. I was reading four copies of cheap fiction-magazines to one poem. I'd put off the Minneapolis trips till I simply had to go there on a lot of legal matters.
"A few years ago I was talking to a patent lawyer from Chicago, and I realized that——I'd always felt so superior to people like Julius Flickerbaugh, but I saw that I was as provincial and behind-the-times as Julius. (Worse! Julius plows through the Literary Digest and the Outlook faithfully, while I'm turning over pages of a book by Charles Flandrau that I already know by heart.)
"I decided to leave here. Stern resolution. Grasp the world. Then I found that the Village Virus had me, absolute: I didn't want to face new streets and younger men—real competition. It was too easy to go on making out conveyances and arguing ditching cases. So——That's all of the biography of a living dead man, except the diverting last chapter, the lies about my having been 'a tower of strength and legal wisdom' which some day a preacher will spin over my lean dry body."
He looked down at his table-desk, fingering the starry enameled vase.
She could not comment. She pictured herself running across the room to pat his hair. She saw that his lips were firm, under his soft faded mustache. She sat still and maundered, "I know. The Village Virus. Perhaps it will get me. Some day I'm going——Oh, no matter. At least, I am making you talk! Usually you have to be polite to my garrulousness, but now I'm sitting at your feet."
"It would be rather nice to have you literally sitting at my feet, by a fire."
"Would you have a fireplace for me?"
"Naturally! Please don't snub me now! Let the old man rave. How old are you, Carol?"
"Twenty-six! I was just leaving New York, at twenty-six. I heard Patti sing, at twenty-six. And now I'm forty-seven. I feel like a child, yet I'm old enough to be your father. So it's decently paternal to imagine you curled at my feet. . . . Of course I hope it isn't, but we'll reflect the morals of Gopher Prairie by officially announcing that it is! . . . These standards that you and I live up to! There's one thing that's the matter with Gopher Prairie, at least with the ruling-class (there is a ruling-class, despite all our professions of democracy). And the penalty we tribal rulers pay is that our subjects watch us every minute. We can't get wholesomely drunk and relax. We have to be so correct about sex morals, and inconspicuous clothes, and doing our commercial trickery only in the traditional ways, that none of us can live up to it, and we become horribly hypocritical. Unavoidably. The widow-robbing deacon of fiction can't help being hypocritical. The widows themselves demand it! They admire his unctuousness. And look at me. Suppose I did dare to make love to—some exquisite married woman. I wouldn't admit it to myself. I giggle with the most revolting salaciousness over La Vie Parisienne, when I get hold of one in Chicago, yet I shouldn't even try to hold your hand. I'm broken. It's the historical Anglo-Saxon way of making life miserable. . . . Oh, my dear, I haven't talked to anybody about myself and all our selves for years."
"Guy! Can't we do something with the town? Really?"
"No, we can't!" He disposed of it like a judge ruling out an improper objection; returned to matters less uncomfortably energetic: "Curious. Most troubles are unnecessary. We have Nature beaten; we can make her grow wheat; we can keep warm when she sends blizzards. So we raise the devil just for pleasure—wars, politics, race-hatreds, labor-disputes. Here in Gopher Prairie we've cleared the fields, and become soft, so we make ourselves unhappy artificially, at great expense and exertion: Methodists disliking Episcopalians, the man with the Hudson laughing at the man with the flivver. The worst is the commercial hatred—the grocer feeling that any man who doesn't deal with him is robbing him. What hurts me is that it applies to lawyers and doctors (and decidedly to their wives!) as much as to grocers. The doctors—you know about that—how your husband and Westlake and Gould dislike one another."
"No! I won't admit it!"
"Oh, maybe once or twice, when Will has positively known of a case where Doctor—where one of the others has continued to call on patients longer than necessary, he has laughed about it, but——"
He still grinned.
"No, REALLY! And when you say the wives of the doctors share these jealousies——Mrs. McGanum and I haven't any particular crush on each other; she's so stolid. But her mother, Mrs. Westlake—nobody could be sweeter."
"Yes, I'm sure she's very bland. But I wouldn't tell her my heart's secrets if I were you, my dear. I insist that there's only one professional-man's wife in this town who doesn't plot, and that is you, you blessed, credulous outsider!"
"I won't be cajoled! I won't believe that medicine, the priesthood of healing, can be turned into a penny-picking business."
"See here: Hasn't Kennicott ever hinted to you that you'd better be nice to some old woman because she tells her friends which doctor to call in? But I oughtn't to——"
She remembered certain remarks which Kennicott had offered regarding the Widow Bogart. She flinched, looked at Guy beseechingly.
He sprang up, strode to her with a nervous step, smoothed her hand. She wondered if she ought to be offended by his caress. Then she wondered if he liked her hat, the new Oriental turban of rose and silver brocade.
He dropped her hand. His elbow brushed her shoulder. He flitted over to the desk-chair, his thin back stooped. He picked up the cloisonne vase. Across it he peered at her with such loneliness that she was startled. But his eyes faded into impersonality as he talked of the jealousies of Gopher Prairie. He stopped himself with a sharp, "Good Lord, Carol, you're not a jury. You are within your legal rights in refusing to be subjected to this summing-up. I'm a tedious old fool analyzing the obvious, while you're the spirit of rebellion. Tell me your side. What is Gopher Prairie to you?"
"Can I help?"
"How could you?"
"I don't know. Perhaps by listening. I haven't done that tonight. But normally——Can't I be the confidant of the old French plays, the tiring-maid with the mirror and the loyal ears?"
"Oh, what is there to confide? The people are savorless and proud of it. And even if I liked you tremendously, I couldn't talk to you without twenty old hexes watching, whispering."
"But you will come talk to me, once in a while?"
"I'm not sure that I shall. I'm trying to develop my own large capacity for dullness and contentment. I've failed at every positive thing I've tried. I'd better 'settle down,' as they call it, and be satisfied to be—nothing."
"Don't be cynical. It hurts me, in you. It's like blood on the wing of a humming-bird."
"I'm not a humming-bird. I'm a hawk; a tiny leashed hawk, pecked to death by these large, white, flabby, wormy hens. But I am grateful to you for confirming me in the faith. And I'm going home!"
"Please stay and have some coffee with me."
"I'd like to. But they've succeeded in terrorizing me. I'm afraid of what people might say."
"I'm not afraid of that. I'm only afraid of what you might say!" He stalked to her; took her unresponsive hand. "Carol! You have been happy here tonight? (Yes. I'm begging!)"
She squeezed his hand quickly, then snatched hers away. She had but little of the curiosity of the flirt, and none of the intrigante's joy in furtiveness. If she was the naive girl, Guy Pollock was the clumsy boy. He raced about the office; he rammed his fists into his pockets. He stammered, "I—I—I——Oh, the devil! Why do I awaken from smooth dustiness to this jagged rawness? I'll make I'm going to trot down the hall and bring in the Dillons, and we'll all have coffee or something."
"Yes. Really quite a decent young pair—Harvey Dillon and his wife. He's a dentist, just come to town. They live in a room behind his office, same as I do here. They don't know much of anybody——"
"I've heard of them. And I've never thought to call. I'm horribly ashamed. Do bring them——"
She stopped, for no very clear reason, but his expression said, her faltering admitted, that they wished they had never mentioned the Dillons. With spurious enthusiasm he said, "Splendid! I will." From the door he glanced at her, curled in the peeled leather chair. He slipped out, came back with Dr. and Mrs. Dillon.
The four of them drank rather bad coffee which Pollock made on a kerosene burner. They laughed, and spoke of Minneapolis, and were tremendously tactful; and Carol started for home, through the November wind.