Book: Main Street

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Next: CHAPTER XVI

CHAPTER XV

THAT December she was in love with her husband.

She romanticized herself not as a great reformer but as the wife of a country physician. The realities of the doctor's household were colored by her pride.

Late at night, a step on the wooden porch, heard through her confusion of sleep; the storm-door opened; fumbling over the inner door-panels; the buzz of the electric bell. Kennicott muttering "Gol darn it," but patiently creeping out of bed, remembering to draw the covers up to keep her warm, feeling for slippers and bathrobe, clumping down-stairs.

From below, half-heard in her drowsiness, a colloquy in the pidgin-German of the farmers who have forgotten the Old Country language without learning the new:

"Hello, Barney, wass willst du?"

"Morgen, doctor. Die Frau ist ja awful sick. All night she been having an awful pain in de belly."

"How long she been this way? Wie lang, eh?"

"I dunno, maybe two days."

"Why didn't you come for me yesterday, instead of waking me up out of a sound sleep? Here it is two o'clock! So spat—warum, eh?"

"Nun aber, I know it, but she got soch a lot vorse last evening. I t'ought maybe all de time it go avay, but it got a lot vorse."

"Any fever?"

"Vell ja, I t'ink she got fever."

"Which side is the pain on?"

"Huh?"

"Das Schmertz—die Weh—which side is it on? Here?"

"So. Right here it is."

"Any rigidity there?"

"Huh?"

"Is it rigid—stiff—I mean, does the belly feel hard to the fingers?"

"I dunno. She ain't said yet."

"What she been eating?"

"Vell, I t'ink about vot ve alwis eat, maybe corn beef and cabbage and sausage, und so weiter. Doc, sie weint immer, all the time she holler like hell. I vish you come."

"Well, all right, but you call me earlier, next time. Look here, Barney, you better install a 'phone—telephone haben. Some of you Dutchmen will be dying one of these days before you can fetch the doctor."

The door closing. Barney's wagon—the wheels silent in the snow, but the wagon-body rattling. Kennicott clicking the receiver-hook to rouse the night telephone-operator, giving a number, waiting, cursing mildly, waiting again, and at last growling, "Hello, Gus, this is the doctor. Say, uh, send me up a team. Guess snow's too thick for a machine. Going eight miles south. All right. Huh? The hell I will! Don't you go back to sleep. Huh? Well, that's all right now, you didn't wait so very darn long. All right, Gus; shoot her along. By!"

His step on the stairs; his quiet moving about the frigid room while he dressed; his abstracted and meaningless cough. She was supposed to be asleep; she was too exquisitely drowsy to break the charm by speaking. On a slip of paper laid on the bureau—she could hear the pencil grinding against the marble slab—he wrote his destination. He went out, hungry, chilly, unprotesting; and she, before she fell asleep again, loved him for his sturdiness, and saw the drama of his riding by night to the frightened household on the distant farm; pictured children standing at a window, waiting for him. He suddenly had in her eyes the heroism of a wireless operator on a ship in a collision; of an explorer, fever-clawed, deserted by his bearers, but going on—jungle—going——

At six, when the light faltered in as through ground glass and bleakly identified the chairs as gray rectangles, she heard his step on the porch; heard him at the furnace: the rattle of shaking the grate, the slow grinding removal of ashes, the shovel thrust into the coal-bin, the abrupt clatter of the coal as it flew into the fire-box, the fussy regulation of drafts—the daily sounds of a Gopher Prairie life, now first appealing to her as something brave and enduring, many-colored and free. She visioned the fire-box: flames turned to lemon and metallic gold as the coal-dust sifted over them; thin twisty flutters of purple, ghost flames which gave no light, slipping up between the dark banked coals.

It was luxurious in bed, and the house would be warm for her when she rose, she reflected. What a worthless cat she was! What were her aspirations beside his capability?

She awoke again as he dropped into bed.

"Seems just a few minutes ago that you started out!"

"I've been away four hours. I've operated a woman for appendicitis, in a Dutch kitchen. Came awful close to losing her, too, but I pulled her through all right. Close squeak. Barney says he shot ten rabbits last Sunday."

He was instantly asleep—one hour of rest before he had to be up and ready for the farmers who came in early. She marveled that in what was to her but a night-blurred moment, he should have been in a distant place, have taken charge of a strange house, have slashed a woman, saved a life.

What wonder he detested the lazy Westlake and McGanum! How could the easy Guy Pollock understand this skill and endurance?

Then Kennicott was grumbling, "Seven-fifteen! Aren't you ever going to get up for breakfast?" and he was not a hero-scientist but a rather irritable and commonplace man who needed a shave. They had coffee, griddle-cakes, and sausages, and talked about Mrs. McGanum's atrocious alligator-hide belt. Night witchery and morning disillusion were alike forgotten in the march of realities and days.

II

Familiar to the doctor's wife was the man with an injured leg, driven in from the country on a Sunday afternoon and brought to the house. He sat in a rocker in the back of a lumber-wagon, his face pale from the anguish of the jolting. His leg was thrust out before him, resting on a starch-box and covered with a leather-bound horse-blanket. His drab courageous wife drove the wagon, and she helped Kennicott support him as he hobbled up the steps, into the house.

"Fellow cut his leg with an ax—pretty bad gash—Halvor Nelson, nine miles out," Kennicott observed.

Carol fluttered at the back of the room, childishly excited when she was sent to fetch towels and a basin of water. Kennicott lifted the farmer into a chair and chuckled, "There we are, Halvor! We'll have you out fixing fences and drinking aquavit in a month." The farmwife sat on the couch, expressionless, bulky in a man's dogskin coat and unplumbed layers of jackets. The flowery silk handkerchief which she had worn over her head now hung about her seamed neck. Her white wool gloves lay in her lap.

Kennicott drew from the injured leg the thick red "German sock," the innumerous other socks of gray and white wool, then the spiral bandage. The leg was of an unwholesome dead white, with the black hairs feeble and thin and flattened, and the scar a puckered line of crimson. Surely, Carol shuddered, this was not human flesh, the rosy shining tissue of the amorous poets.

Kennicott examined the scar, smiled at Halvor and his wife, chanted, "Fine, b' gosh! Couldn't be better!"

The Nelsons looked deprecating. The farmer nodded a cue to his wife and she mourned:

"Vell, how much ve going to owe you, doctor?"

"I guess it'll be——Let's see: one drive out and two calls. I guess it'll be about eleven dollars in all, Lena."

"I dunno ve can pay you yoost a little w'ile, doctor."

Kennicott lumbered over to her, patted her shoulder, roared, "Why, Lord love you, sister, I won't worry if I never get it! You pay me next fall, when you get your crop. . . . Carrie! Suppose you or Bea could shake up a cup of coffee and some cold lamb for the Nelsons? They got a long cold drive ahead."

III

He had been gone since morning; her eyes ached with reading; Vida Sherwin could not come to tea. She wandered through the house, empty as the bleary street without. The problem of "Will the doctor be home in time for supper, or shall I sit down without him?" was important in the household. Six was the rigid, the canonical supper-hour, but at half-past six he had not come. Much speculation with Bea: Had the obstetrical case taken longer than he had expected? Had he been called somewhere else? Was the snow much heavier out in the country, so that he should have taken a buggy, or even a cutter, instead of the car? Here in town it had melted a lot, but still——

A honking, a shout, the motor engine raced before it was shut off.

She hurried to the window. The car was a monster at rest after furious adventures. The headlights blazed on the clots of ice in the road so that the tiniest lumps gave mountainous shadows, and the taillight cast a circle of ruby on the snow behind. Kennicott was opening the door, crying, "Here we are, old girl! Got stuck couple times, but we made it, by golly, we made it, and here we be! Come on! Food! Eatin's!"

She rushed to him, patted his fur coat, the long hairs smooth but chilly to her fingers. She joyously summoned Bea, "All right! He's here! We'll sit right down!"

IV

There were, to inform the doctor's wife of his successes no clapping audiences nor book-reviews nor honorary degrees. But there was a letter written by a German farmer recently moved from Minnesota to Saskatchewan:

Dear sor, as you haf bin treading mee for a fue Weaks dis Somer and seen wat is rong wit mee so in Regarding to dat i wont to tank you. the Doctor heir say wat shot bee rong wit mee and day give mee som Madsin but it diten halp mee like wat you dit. Now day glaim dat i Woten Neet aney Madsin ad all wat you tink?

Well i haven ben tacking aney ting for about one & 1/2 Mont but i dont get better so i like to heir Wat you tink about it i feel like dis Disconfebil feeling around the Stomac after eating and dat Pain around Heard and down the arm and about 3 to 3 1/2 Hour after Eating i feel weeak like and dissy and a dull Hadig. Now you gust lett mee know Wat you tink about mee, i do Wat you say.

V

She encountered Guy Pollock at the drug store. He looked at her as though he had a right to; he spoke softly. "I haven't see you, the last few days."

"No. I've been out in the country with Will several times. He's so——Do you know that people like you and me can never understand people like him? We're a pair of hypercritical loafers, you and I, while he quietly goes and does things."

She nodded and smiled and was very busy about purchasing boric acid. He stared after her, and slipped away.

When she found that he was gone she was slightly disconcerted.

VI

She could—at times—agree with Kennicott that the shaving-and-corsets familiarity of married life was not dreary vulgarity but a wholesome frankness; that artificial reticences might merely be irritating. She was not much disturbed when for hours he sat about the living-room in his honest socks. But she would not listen to his theory that "all this romance stuff is simply moonshine—elegant when you're courting, but no use busting yourself keeping it up all your life."

She thought of surprises, games, to vary the days. She knitted an astounding purple scarf, which she hid under his supper plate. (When he discovered it he looked embarrassed, and gasped, "Is today an anniversary or something? Gosh, I'd forgotten it!")

Once she filled a thermos bottle with hot coffee a corn-flakes box with cookies just baked by Bea, and bustled to his office at three in the afternoon. She hid her bundles in the hall and peeped in.

The office was shabby. Kennicott had inherited it from a medical predecessor, and changed it only by adding a white enameled operating-table, a sterilizer, a Roentgen-ray apparatus, and a small portable typewriter. It was a suite of two rooms: a waiting-room with straight chairs, shaky pine table, and those coverless and unknown magazines which are found only in the offices of dentists and doctors. The room beyond, looking on Main Street, was business-office, consulting-room, operating-room, and, in an alcove, bacteriological and chemical laboratory. The wooden floors of both rooms were bare; the furniture was brown and scaly.

Waiting for the doctor were two women, as still as though they were paralyzed, and a man in a railroad brakeman's uniform, holding his bandaged right hand with his tanned left. They stared at Carol. She sat modestly in a stiff chair, feeling frivolous and out of place.

Kennicott appeared at the inner door, ushering out a bleached man with a trickle of wan beard, and consoling him, "All right, Dad. Be careful about the sugar, and mind the diet I gave you. Gut the prescription filled, and come in and see me next week. Say, uh, better, uh, better not drink too much beer. All right, Dad."

His voice was artificially hearty. He looked absently at Carol. He was a medical machine now, not a domestic machine. "What is it, Carrie?" he droned.

"No hurry. Just wanted to say hello."

"Well——"

Self-pity because he did not divine that this was a surprise party rendered her sad and interesting to herself, and she had the pleasure of the martyrs in saying bravely to him, "It's nothing special. If you're busy long I'll trot home."

While she waited she ceased to pity and began to mock herself. For the first time she observed the waiting-room. Oh yes, the doctor's family had to have obi panels and a wide couch and an electric percolator, but any hole was good enough for sick tired common people who were nothing but the one means and excuse for the doctor's existing! No. She couldn't blame Kennicott. He was satisfied by the shabby chairs. He put up with them as his patients did. It was her neglected province—she who had been going about talking of rebuilding the whole town!

When the patients were gone she brought in her bundles.

"What's those?" wondered Kennicott.

"Turn your back! Look out of the window!"

He obeyed—not very much bored. When she cried "Now!" a feast of cookies and small hard candies and hot coffee was spread on the roll-top desk in the inner room.

His broad face lightened. "That's a new one on me! Never was more surprised in my life! And, by golly, I believe I am hungry. Say, this is fine."

When the first exhilaration of the surprise had declined she demanded, "Will! I'm going to refurnish your waiting-room!"

"What's the matter with it? It's all right."

"It is not! It's hideous. We can afford to give your patients a better place. And it would be good business." She felt tremendously politic.

"Rats! I don't worry about the business. You look here now: As I told you——Just because I like to tuck a few dollars away, I'll be switched if I'll stand for your thinking I'm nothing but a dollar-chasing——"

"Stop it! Quick! I'm not hurting your feelings! I'm not criticizing! I'm the adoring least one of thy harem. I just mean——"

Two days later, with pictures, wicker chairs, a rug, she had made the waiting-room habitable; and Kennicott admitted, "Does look a lot better. Never thought much about it. Guess I need being bullied."

She was convinced that she was gloriously content in her career as doctor's-wife.

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Next: CHAPTER XVI