"CARRIE'S all right. She's finicky, but she'll get over it. But I wish she'd hurry up about it! What she can't understand is that a fellow practising medicine in a small town like this has got to cut out the highbrow stuff, and not spend all his time going to concerts and shining his shoes. (Not but what he might be just as good at all these intellectual and art things as some other folks, if he had the time for it!)" Dr. Will Kennicott was brooding in his office, during a free moment toward the end of the summer afternoon. He hunched down in his tilted desk-chair, undid a button of his shirt, glanced at the state news in the back of the Journal of the American Medical Association, dropped the magazine, leaned back with his right thumb hooked in the arm-hole of his vest and his left thumb stroking the back of his hair.
"By golly, she's taking an awful big chance, though. You'd expect her to learn by and by that I won't be a parlor lizard. She says we try to 'make her over.' Well, she's always trying to make me over, from a perfectly good M. D. into a damn poet with a socialist necktie! She'd have a fit if she knew how many women would be willing to cuddle up to Friend Will and comfort him, if he'd give 'em the chance! There's still a few dames that think the old man isn't so darn unattractive! I'm glad I've ducked all that woman-game since I've been married but——Be switched if sometimes I don't feel tempted to shine up to some girl that has sense enough to take life as it is; some frau that doesn't want to talk Longfellow all the time, but just hold my hand and say, 'You look all in, honey. Take it easy, and don't try to talk.'
"Carrie thinks she's such a whale at analyzing folks. Giving the town the once-over. Telling us where we get off. Why, she'd simply turn up her toes and croak if she found out how much she doesn't know about the high old times a wise guy could have in this burg on the Q.T., if he wasn't faithful to his wife. But I am. At that, no matter what faults she's got, there's nobody here, no, nor in Minn'aplus either, that's as nice-looking and square and bright as Carrie. She ought to of been an artist or a writer or one of those things. But once she took a shot at living here, she ought to stick by it. Pretty——Lord yes. But cold. She simply doesn't know what passion is. She simply hasn't got an í-dea how hard it is for a full-blooded man to go on pretending to be satisfied with just being endured. It gets awful tiresome, having to feel like a criminal just because I'm normal. She's getting so she doesn't even care for my kissing her. Well——
"I guess I can weather it, same as I did earning my way through school and getting started in practise. But I wonder how long I can stand being an outsider in my own home?"
He sat up at the entrance of Mrs. Dave Dyer. She slumped into a chair and gasped with the heat. He chuckled, "Well, well, Maud, this is fine. Where's the subscription-list? What cause do I get robbed for, this trip?"
"I haven't any subscription-list, Will. I want to see you professionally."
"And you a Christian Scientist? Have you given that up? What next? New Thought or Spiritualism?"
"No, I have not given it up!"
"Strikes me it's kind of a knock on the sisterhood, your coming to see a doctor!"
"No, it isn't. It's just that my faith isn't strong enough yet. So there now! And besides, you ARE kind of consoling, Will. I mean as a man, not just as a doctor. You're so strong and placid."
He sat on the edge of his desk, coatless, his vest swinging open with the thick gold line of his watch-chain across the gap, his hands in his trousers pockets, his big arms bent and easy. As she purred he cocked an interested eye. Maud Dyer was neurotic, religiocentric, faded; her emotions were moist, and her figure was unsystematic—splendid thighs and arms, with thick ankles, and a body that was bulgy in the wrong places. But her milky skin was delicious, her eyes were alive, her chestnut hair shone, and there was a tender slope from her ears to the shadowy place below her jaw.
With unusual solicitude he uttered his stock phrase, "Well, what seems to be the matter, Maud?"
"I've got such a backache all the time. I'm afraid the organic trouble that you treated me for is coming back."
"Any definite signs of it?"
"N-no, but I think you'd better examine me."
"Nope. Don't believe it's necessary, Maud. To be honest, between old friends, I think your troubles are mostly imaginary. I can't really advise you to have an examination."
She flushed, looked out of the window. He was conscious that his voice was not impersonal and even.
She turned quickly. "Will, you always say my troubles are imaginary. Why can't you be scientific? I've been reading an article about these new nerve-specialists, and they claim that lots of 'imaginary' ailments, yes, and lots of real pain, too, are what they call psychoses, and they order a change in a woman's way of living so she can get on a higher plane——"
"Wait! Wait! Whoa-up! Wait now! Don't mix up your Christian Science and your psychology! They're two entirely different fads! You'll be mixing in socialism next! You're as bad as Carrie, with your 'psychoses.' Why, Good Lord, Maud, I could talk about neuroses and psychoses and inhibitions and repressions and complexes just as well as any damn specialist, if I got paid for it, if I was in the city and had the nerve to charge the fees that those fellows do. If a specialist stung you for a hundred-dollar consultation-fee and told you to go to New York to duck Dave's nagging, you'd do it, to save the hundred dollars! But you know me—I'm your neighbor—you see me mowing the lawn—you figure I'm just a plug general practitioner. If I said, 'Go to New York,' Dave and you would laugh your heads off and say, 'Look at the airs Will is putting on. What does he think he is?'
"As a matter of fact, you're right. You have a perfectly well-developed case of repression of sex instinct, and it raises the old Ned with your body. What you need is to get away from Dave and travel, yes, and go to every dog-gone kind of New Thought and Bahai and Swami and Hooptedoodle meeting you can find. I know it, well 's you do. But how can I advise it? Dave would be up here taking my hide off. I'm willing to be family physician and priest and lawyer and plumber and wet-nurse, but I draw the line at making Dave loosen up on money. Too hard a job in weather like this! So, savvy, my dear? Believe it will rain if this heat keeps——"
"But, Will, he'd never give it to me on my say-so. He'd never let me go away. You know how Dave is: so jolly and liberal in society, and oh, just LOVES to match quarters, and such a perfect sport if he loses! But at home he pinches a nickel till the buffalo drips blood. I have to nag him for every single dollar."
"Sure, I know, but it's your fight, honey. Keep after him. He'd simply resent my butting in."
He crossed over and patted her shoulder. Outside the window, beyond the fly-screen that was opaque with dust and cottonwood lint, Main Street was hushed except for the impatient throb of a standing motor car. She took his firm hand, pressed his knuckles against her cheek.
"O Will, Dave is so mean and little and noisy—the shrimp! You're so calm. When he's cutting up at parties I see you standing back and watching him—the way a mastiff watches a terrier."
He fought for professional dignity with, "Dave 's not a bad fellow."
Lingeringly she released his hand. "Will, drop round by the house this evening and scold me. Make me be good and sensible. And I'm so lonely."
"If I did, Dave would be there, and we'd have to play cards. It's his evening off from the store."
"No. The clerk just got called to Corinth—mother sick. Dave will be in the store till midnight. Oh, come on over. There's some lovely beer on the ice, and we can sit and talk and be all cool and lazy. That wouldn't be wrong of us, WOULD it!"
"No, no, course it wouldn't be wrong. But still, oughtn't to——" He saw Carol, slim black and ivory, cool, scornful of intrigue.
"All right. But I'll be so lonely."
Her throat seemed young, above her loose blouse of muslin and machine-lace.
"Tell you, Maud: I'll drop in just for a minute, if I happen to be called down that way."
"If you'd like," demurely. "O Will, I just want comfort. I know you're all married, and my, such a proud papa, and of course now——If I could just sit near you in the dusk, and be quiet, and forget Dave! You WILL come?"
"Sure I will!"
"I'll expect you. I'll be lonely if you don't come! Good-by."
He cursed himself: "Darned fool, what 'd I promise to go for? I'll have to keep my promise, or she'll feel hurt. She's a good, decent, affectionate girl, and Dave's a cheap skate, all right. She's got more life to her than Carol has. All my fault, anyway. Why can't I be more cagey, like Calibree and McGanum and the rest of the doctors? Oh, I am, but Maud's such a demanding idiot. Deliberately bamboozling me into going up there tonight. Matter of principle: ought not to let her get away with it. I won't go. I'll call her up and tell her I won't go. Me, with Carrie at home, finest little woman in the world, and a messy-minded female like Maud Dyer—no, SIR! Though there's no need of hurting her feelings. I may just drop in for a second, to tell her I can't stay. All my fault anyway; ought never to have started in and jollied Maud along in the old days. If it's my fault, I've got no right to punish Maud. I could just drop in for a second and then pretend I had a country call and beat it. Damn nuisance, though, having to fake up excuses. Lord, why can't the women let you alone? Just because once or twice, seven hundred million years ago, you were a poor fool, why can't they let you forget it? Maud's own fault. I'll stay strictly away. Take Carrie to the movies, and forget Maud. . . . But it would be kind of hot at the movies tonight."
He fled from himself. He rammed on his hat, threw his coat over his arm, banged the door, locked it, tramped downstairs. "I won't go!" he said sturdily and, as he said it, he would have given a good deal to know whether he was going.
He was refreshed, as always, by the familiar windows and faces. It restored his soul to have Sam Clark trustingly bellow, "Better come down to the lake this evening and have a swim, doc. Ain't you going to open your cottage at all, this summer? By golly, we miss you." He noted the progress on the new garage. He had triumphed in the laying of every course of bricks; in them he had seen the growth of the town. His pride was ushered back to its throne by the respectfulness of Oley Sundquist: "Evenin', doc! The woman is a lot better. That was swell medicine you gave her." He was calmed by the mechanicalness of the tasks at home: burning the gray web of a tent-worm on the wild cherry tree, sealing with gum a cut in the right front tire of the car, sprinkling the road before the house. The hose was cool to his hands. As the bright arrows fell with a faint puttering sound, a crescent of blackness was formed in the gray dust.
Dave Dyer came along.
"Where going, Dave?"
"Down to the store. Just had supper."
"But Thursday 's your night off."
"Sure, but Pete went home. His mother 's supposed to be sick. Gosh, these clerks you get nowadays—overpay 'em and then they won't work!"
"That's tough, Dave. You'll have to work clear up till twelve, then."
"Yup. Better drop in and have a cigar, if you're downtown.
"Well, I may, at that. May have to go down and see Mrs. Champ Perry. She's ailing. So long, Dave."
Kennicott had not yet entered the house. He was conscious that Carol was near him, that she was important, that he was afraid of her disapproval; but he was content to be alone. When he had finished sprinkling he strolled into the house, up to the baby's room, and cried to Hugh, "Story-time for the old man, eh?"
Carol was in a low chair, framed and haloed by the window behind her, an image in pale gold. The baby curled in her lap, his head on her arm, listening with gravity while she sang from Gene Field:
'Tis little Luddy-Dud in the morning— 'Tis little Luddy-Dud at night: And all day long 'Tis the same dear song Of that growing, crowing, knowing little sprite.
Kennicott was enchanted.
"Maud Dyer? I should say not!"
When the current maid bawled up-stairs, "Supper on de table!" Kennicott was upon his back, flapping his hands in the earnest effort to be a seal, thrilled by the strength with which his son kicked him. He slipped his arm about Carol's shoulder; he went down to supper rejoicing that he was cleansed of perilous stuff. While Carol was putting the baby to bed he sat on the front steps. Nat Hicks, tailor and roue, came to sit beside him. Between waves of his hand as he drove off mosquitos, Nat whispered, "Say, doc, you don't feel like imagining you're a bacheldore again, and coming out for a Time tonight, do you?"
"You know this new dressmaker, Mrs. Swiftwaite?—swell dame with blondine hair? Well, she's a pretty good goer. Me and Harry Haydock are going to take her and that fat wren that works in the Bon Ton—nice kid, too—on an auto ride tonight. Maybe we'll drive down to that farm Harry bought. We're taking some beer, and some of the smoothest rye you ever laid tongue to. I'm not predicting none, but if we don't have a picnic, I'll miss my guess."
"Go to it. No skin off my ear, Nat. Think I want to be fifth wheel in the coach?"
"No, but look here: The little Swiftwaite has a friend with her from Winona, dandy looker and some gay bird, and Harry and me thought maybe you'd like to sneak off for one evening."
"Rats now, doc, forget your everlasting dignity. You used to be a pretty good sport yourself, when you were foot-free."
It may have been the fact that Mrs. Swiftwaite's friend remained to Kennicott an ill-told rumor, it may have been Carol's voice, wistful in the pallid evening as she sang to Hugh, it may have been natural and commendable virtue, but certainly he was positive:
"Nope. I'm married for keeps. Don't pretend to be any saint. Like to get out and raise Cain and shoot a few drinks. But a fellow owes a duty——Straight now, won't you feel like a sneak when you come back to the missus after your jamboree?"
"Me? My moral in life is, 'What they don't know won't hurt 'em none.' The way to handle wives, like the fellow says, is to catch 'em early, treat 'em rough, and tell 'em nothing!"
"Well, that's your business, I suppose. But I can't get away with it. Besides that—way I figure it, this illicit love-making is the one game that you always lose at. If you do lose, you feel foolish; and if you win, as soon as you find out how little it is that you've been scheming for, why then you lose worse than ever. Nature stinging us, as usual. But at that, I guess a lot of wives in this burg would be surprised if they knew everything that goes on behind their backs, eh, Nattie?"
"WOULD they! Say, boy! If the good wives knew what some of the boys get away with when they go down to the Cities, why, they'd throw a fit! Sure you won't come, doc? Think of getting all cooled off by a good long drive, and then the lov-e-ly Swiftwaite's white hand mixing you a good stiff highball!"
"Nope. Nope. Sorry. Guess I won't," grumbled Kennicott.
He was glad that Nat showed signs of going. But he was restless. He heard Carol on the stairs. "Come have a seat—have the whole earth!" he shouted jovially.
She did not answer his joviality. She sat on the porch, rocked silently, then sighed, "So many mosquitos out here. You haven't had the screen fixed."
As though he was testing her he said quietly, "Head aching again?"
"Oh, not much, but——This maid is SO slow to learn. I have to show her everything. I had to clean most of the silver myself. And Hugh was so bad all afternoon. He whined so. Poor soul, he was hot, but he did wear me out."
"Uh——You usually want to get out. Like to walk down to the lake shore? (The girl can stay home.) Or go to the movies? Come on, let's go to the movies! Or shall we jump in the car and run out to Sam's, for a swim?"
"If you don't mind, dear, I'm afraid I'm rather tired."
"Why don't you sleep down-stairs tonight, on the couch? Be cooler. I'm going to bring down my mattress. Come on! Keep the old man company. Can't tell—I might get scared of burglars. Lettin' little fellow like me stay all alone by himself!"
"It's sweet of you to think of it, but I like my own room so much. But you go ahead and do it, dear. Why don't you sleep on the couch, instead of putting your mattress on the floor? Well I believe I'll run in and read for just a second—want to look at the last Vogue—and then perhaps I'll go by-by. Unless you want me, dear? Of course if there's anything you really WANT me for?"
"No. No. . . . Matter of fact, I really ought to run down and see Mrs. Champ Perry. She's ailing. So you skip in and——May drop in at the drug store. If I'm not home when you get sleepy, don't wait up for me."
He kissed her, rambled off, nodded to Jim Howland, stopped indifferently to speak to Mrs. Terry Gould. But his heart was racing, his stomach was constricted. He walked more slowly. He reached Dave Dyer's yard. He glanced in. On the porch, sheltered by a wild-grape vine, was the figure of a woman in white. He heard the swing-couch creak as she sat up abruptly, peered, then leaned back and pretended to relax.
"Be nice to have some cool beer. Just drop in for a second," he insisted, as he opened the Dyer gate.