SHE had lived in Washington for a year. She was tired of the office. It was tolerable, far more tolerable than housework, but it was not adventurous.
She was having tea and cinnamon toast, alone at a small round table on the balcony of Rauscher's Confiserie. Four debutantes clattered in. She had felt young and dissipated, had thought rather well of her black and leaf-green suit, but as she watched them, thin of ankle, soft under the chin, seventeen or eighteen at most, smoking cigarettes with the correct ennui and talking of "bedroom farces" and their desire to "run up to New York and see something racy," she became old and rustic and plain, and desirous of retreating from these hard brilliant children to a life easier and more sympathetic. When they flickered out and one child gave orders to a chauffeur, Carol was not a defiant philosopher but a faded government clerk from Gopher Prairie, Minnesota.
She started dejectedly up Connecticut Avenue. She stopped, her heart stopped. Coming toward her were Harry and Juanita Haydock. She ran to them, she kissed Juanita, while Harry confided, "Hadn't expected to come to Washington—had to go to New York for some buying—didn't have your address along—just got in this morning—wondered how in the world we could get hold of you."
She was definitely sorry to hear that they were to leave at nine that evening, and she clung to them as long as she could. She took them to St. Mark's for dinner. Stooped, her elbows on the table, she heard with excitement that "Cy Bogart had the 'flu, but of course he was too gol-darn mean to die of it."
"Will wrote me that Mr. Blausser has gone away. How did he get on?"
"Fine! Fine! Great loss to the town. There was a real public-spirited fellow, all right!"
She discovered that she now had no opinions whatever about Mr. Blausser, and she said sympathetically, "Will you keep up the town-boosting campaign?"
Harry fumbled, "Well, we've dropped it just temporarily, but—sure you bet! Say, did the doc write you about the luck B. J. Gougerling had hunting ducks down in Texas?"
When the news had been told and their enthusiasm had slackened she looked about and was proud to be able to point out a senator, to explain the cleverness of the canopied garden. She fancied that a man with dinner-coat and waxed mustache glanced superciliously at Harry's highly form-fitting bright-brown suit and Juanita's tan silk frock, which was doubtful at the seams. She glared back, defending her own, daring the world not to appreciate them.
Then, waving to them, she lost them down the long train shed. She stood reading the list of stations: Harrisburg, Pittsburg, Chicago. Beyond Chicago——? She saw the lakes and stubble fields, heard the rhythm of insects and the creak of a buggy, was greeted by Sam Clark's "Well, well, how's the little lady?"
Nobody in Washington cared enough for her to fret about her sins as Sam did.
But that night they had at the flat a man just back from Finland.
She was on the Powhatan roof with the captain. At a table, somewhat vociferously buying improbable "soft drinks" for two fluffy girls, was a man with a large familiar back.
"Oh! I think I know him," she murmured.
"Who? There? Oh, Bresnahan, Percy Bresnahan."
"Yes. You've met him? What sort of a man is he?"
"He's a good-hearted idiot. I rather like him, and I believe that as a salesman of motors he's a wonder. But he's a nuisance in the aeronautic section. Tries so hard to be useful but he doesn't know anything—he doesn't know anything. Rather pathetic: rich man poking around and trying to be useful. Do you want to speak to him?"
"No—no—I don't think so."
She was at a motion-picture show. The film was a highly advertised and abysmal thing smacking of simpering hair-dressers, cheap perfume, red-plush suites on the back streets of tenderloins, and complacent fat women chewing gum. It pretended to deal with the life of studios. The leading man did a portrait which was a masterpiece. He also saw visions in pipe-smoke, and was very brave and poor and pure. He had ringlets, and his masterpiece was strangely like an enlarged photograph.
Carol prepared to leave.
On the screen, in the role of a composer, appeared an actor called Eric Valour.
She was startled, incredulous, then wretched. Looking straight out at her, wearing a beret and a velvet jacket, was Erik Valborg.
He had a pale part, which he played neither well nor badly. She speculated, "I could have made so much of him——" She did not finish her speculation.
She went home and read Kennicott's letters. They had seemed stiff and undetailed, but now there strode from them a personality, a personality unlike that of the languishing young man in the velvet jacket playing a dummy piano in a canvas room.
Kennicott first came to see her in November, thirteen months after her arrival in Washington. When he announced that he was coming she was not at all sure that she wished to see him. She was glad that he had made the decision himself.
She had leave from the office for two days.
She watched him marching from the train, solid, assured, carrying his heavy suit-case, and she was diffident—he was such a bulky person to handle. They kissed each other questioningly, and said at the same time, "You're looking fine; how's the baby?" and "You're looking awfully well, dear; how is everything?"
He grumbled, "I don't want to butt in on any plans you've made or your friends or anything, but if you've got time for it, I'd like to chase around Washington, and take in some restaurants and shows and stuff, and forget work for a while."
She realized, in the taxicab, that he was wearing a soft gray suit, a soft easy hat, a flippant tie.
"Like the new outfit? Got 'em in Chicago. Gosh, I hope they're the kind you like."
They spent half an hour at the flat, with Hugh. She was flustered, but he gave no sign of kissing her again.
As he moved about the small rooms she realized that he had had his new tan shoes polished to a brassy luster. There was a recent cut on his chin. He must have shaved on the train just before coming into Washington.
It was pleasant to feel how important she was, how many people she recognized, as she took him to the Capitol, as she told him (he asked and she obligingly guessed) how many feet it was to the top of the dome, as she pointed out Senator LaFollette and the vice-president, and at lunch-time showed herself an habitue by leading him through the catacombs to the senate restaurant.
She realized that he was slightly more bald. The familiar way in which his hair was parted on the left side agitated her. She looked down at his hands, and the fact that his nails were as ill-treated as ever touched her more than his pleading shoe-shine.
"You'd like to motor down to Mount Vernon this afternoon, wouldn't you?" she said.
It was the one thing he had planned. He was delighted that it seemed to be a perfectly well bred and Washingtonian thing to do.
He shyly held her hand on the way, and told her the news: they were excavating the basement for the new schoolbuilding, Vida "made him tired the way she always looked at the Maje," poor Chet Dashaway had been killed in a motor accident out on the Coast. He did not coax her to like him. At Mount Vernon he admired the paneled library and Washington's dental tools.
She knew that he would want oysters, that he would have heard of Harvey's apropos of Grant and Blaine, and she took him there. At dinner his hearty voice, his holiday enjoyment of everything, turned into nervousness in his desire to know a number of interesting matters, such as whether they still were married. But he did not ask questions, and he said nothing about her returning. He cleared his throat and observed, "Oh say, been trying out the old camera. Don't you think these are pretty good?"
He tossed over to her thirty prints of Gopher Prairie and the country about. Without defense, she was thrown into it. She remembered that he had lured her with photographs in courtship days; she made a note of his sameness, his satisfaction with the tactics which had proved good before; but she forgot it in the familiar places. She was seeing the sun-speckled ferns among birches on the shore of Minniemashie, wind-rippled miles of wheat, the porch of their own house where Hugh had played, Main Street where she knew every window and every face.
She handed them back, with praise for his photography, and he talked of lenses and time-exposures.
Dinner was over and they were gossiping of her friends at the flat, but an intruder was with them, sitting back, persistent, inescapable. She could not endure it. She stammered:
"I had you check your bag at the station because I wasn't quite sure where you'd stay. I'm dreadfully sorry we haven't room to put you up at the flat. We ought to have seen about a room for you before. Don't you think you better call up the Willard or the Washington now?"
He peered at her cloudily. Without words he asked, without speech she answered, whether she was also going to the Willard or the Washington. But she tried to look as though she did not know that they were debating anything of the sort. She would have hated him had he been meek about it. But he was neither meek nor angry. However impatient he may have been with her blandness he said readily:
"Yes, guess I better do that. Excuse me a second. Then how about grabbing a taxi (Gosh, isn't it the limit the way these taxi shuffers skin around a corner? Got more nerve driving than I have!) and going up to your flat for a while? Like to meet your friends—must be fine women—and I might take a look and see how Hugh sleeps. Like to know how he breathes. Don't think he has adenoids, but I better make sure, eh?" He patted her shoulder.
At the flat they found her two housemates and a girl who had been to jail for suffrage. Kennicott fitted in surprisingly. He laughed at the girl's story of the humors of a hunger-strike; he told the secretary what to do when her eyes were tired from typing; and the teacher asked him—not as the husband of a friend but as a physician—whether there was "anything to this inoculation for colds."
His colloquialisms seemed to Carol no more lax than their habitual slang.
Like an older brother he kissed her good-night in the midst of the company.
"He's terribly nice," said her housemates, and waited for confidences. They got none, nor did her own heart. She could find nothing definite to agonize about. She felt that she was no longer analyzing and controlling forces, but swept on by them.
He came to the flat for breakfast, and washed the dishes. That was her only occasion for spite. Back home he never thought of washing dishes!
She took him to the obvious "sights"—the Treasury, the Monument, the Corcoran Gallery, the Pan-American Building, the Lincoln Memorial, with the Potomac beyond it and the Arlington hills and the columns of the Lee Mansion. For all his willingness to play there was over him a melancholy which piqued her. His normally expressionless eyes had depths to them now, and strangeness. As they walked through Lafayette Square, looking past the Jackson statue at the lovely tranquil facade of the White House, he sighed, "I wish I'd had a shot at places like this. When I was in the U., I had to earn part of my way, and when I wasn't doing that or studying, I guess I was roughhousing. My gang were a great bunch for bumming around and raising Cain. Maybe if I'd been caught early and sent to concerts and all that——Would I have been what you call intelligent?"
"Oh, my dear, don't be humble! You are intelligent! For instance, you're the most thorough doctor——"
He was edging about something he wished to say. He pounced on it:
"You did like those pictures of G. P. pretty well, after all, didn't you!"
"Yes, of course."
"Wouldn't be so bad to have a glimpse of the old town, would it!"
"No, it wouldn't. Just as I was terribly glad to see the Haydocks. But please understand me! That doesn't mean that I withdraw all my criticisms. The fact that I might like a glimpse of old friends hasn't any particular relation to the question of whether Gopher Prairie oughtn't to have festivals and lamb chops."
Hastily, "No, no! Sure not. I und'stand."
"But I know it must have been pretty tiresome to have to live with anybody as perfect as I was."
He grinned. She liked his grin.