Main Street, by Sinclair Lewis

Chapter 17

THEY were driving down the lake to the cottages that moonlit January night, twenty of them in the bob-sled. They sang “Toy Land” and “Seeing Nelly Home”; they leaped from the low back of the sled to race over the slippery snow ruts; and when they were tired they climbed on the runners for a lift. The moon-tipped flakes kicked up by the horses settled over the revelers and dripped down their necks, but they laughed, yelped, beat their leather mittens against their chests. The harness rattled, the sleigh-bells were frantic, Jack Elder’s setter sprang beside the horses, barking.

For a time Carol raced with them. The cold air gave fictive power. She felt that she could run on all night, leap twenty feet at a stride. But the excess of energy tired her, and she was glad to snuggle under the comforters which covered the hay in the sled-box.

In the midst of the babel she found enchanted quietude.

Along the road the shadows from oak-branches were inked on the snow like bars of music. Then the sled came out on the surface of Lake Minniemashie. Across the thick ice was a veritable road, a short-cut for farmers. On the glaring expanse of the lake-levels of hard crust, flashes of green ice blown clear, chains of drifts ribbed like the sea-beach — the moonlight was overwhelming. It stormed on the snow, it turned the woods ashore into crystals of fire. The night was tropical and voluptuous. In that drugged magic there was no difference between heavy heat and insinuating cold.

Carol was dream-strayed. The turbulent voices, even Guy Pollock being connotative beside her, were nothing. She repeated:

Deep on the convent-roof the snows

Are sparkling to the moon.

The words and the light blurred into one vast indefinite happiness, and she believed that some great thing was coming to her. She withdrew from the clamor into a worship of incomprehensible gods. The night expanded, she was conscious of the universe, and all mysteries stooped down to her.

She was jarred out of her ecstasy as the bob-sled bumped up the steep road to the bluff where stood the cottages.

They dismounted at Jack Elder’s shack. The interior walls of unpainted boards, which had been grateful in August, were forbidding in the chill. In fur coats and mufflers tied over caps they were a strange company, bears and walruses talking. Jack Elder lighted the shavings waiting in the belly of a cast-iron stove which was like an enlarged bean-pot. They piled their wraps high on a rocker, and cheered the rocker as it solemnly tipped over backward.

Mrs. Elder and Mrs. Sam Clark made coffee in an enormous blackened tin pot; Vida Sherwin and Mrs. McGanum unpacked doughnuts and gingerbread; Mrs. Dave Dyer warmed up “hot dogs”— frankfurters in rolls; Dr. Terry Gould, after announcing, “Ladies and gents, prepare to be shocked; shock line forms on the right,” produced a bottle of bourbon whisky.

The others danced, muttering “Ouch!” as their frosted feet struck the pine planks. Carol had lost her dream. Harry Haydock lifted her by the waist and swung her. She laughed. The gravity of the people who stood apart and talked made her the more impatient for frolic.

Kennicott, Sam Clark, Jackson Elder, young Dr. McGanum, and James Madison Howland, teetering on their toes near the stove, conversed with the sedate pomposity of the commercialist. In details the men were unlike, yet they said the same things in the same hearty monotonous voices. You had to look at them to see which was speaking.

“Well, we made pretty good time coming up,” from one — any one.

“Yump, we hit it up after we struck the good going on the lake.”

“Seems kind of slow though, after driving an auto.”

“Yump, it does, at that. Say, how’d you make out with that Sphinx tire you got?”

“Seems to hold out fine. Still, I don’t know’s I like it any better than the Roadeater Cord.”

“Yump, nothing better than a Roadeater. Especially the cord. The cord’s lots better than the fabric.”

“Yump, you said something —— Roadeater’s a good tire.”

“Say, how’d you come out with Pete Garsheim on his payments?”

“He’s paying up pretty good. That’s a nice piece of land he’s got.”

“Yump, that’s a dandy farm.”

“Yump, Pete’s got a good place there.”

They glided from these serious topics into the jocose insults which are the wit of Main Street. Sam Clark was particularly apt at them. “What’s this wild-eyed sale of summer caps you think you’re trying to pull off?” he clamored at Harry Haydock. “Did you steal ’em, or are you just overcharging us, as usual? . . . Oh say, speaking about caps, d’I ever tell you the good one I’ve got on Will? The doc thinks he’s a pretty good driver, fact, he thinks he’s almost got human intelligence, but one time he had his machine out in the rain, and the poor fish, he hadn’t put on chains, and thinks I——”

Carol had heard the story rather often. She fled back to the dancers, and at Dave Dyer’s masterstroke of dropping an icicle down Mrs. McGanum’s back she applauded hysterically.

They sat on the floor, devouring the food. The men giggled amiably as they passed the whisky bottle, and laughed, “There’s a real sport!” when Juanita Haydock took a sip. Carol tried to follow; she believed that she desired to be drunk and riotous; but the whisky choked her and as she saw Kennicott frown she handed the bottle on repentantly. Somewhat too late she remembered that she had given up domesticity and repentance.

“Let’s play charades!” said Raymie Wutherspoon.

“Oh yes, do let us,” said Ella Stowbody.

“That’s the caper,” sanctioned Harry Haydock.

They interpreted the word “making” as May and King. The crown was a red flannel mitten cocked on Sam Clark’s broad pink bald head. They forgot they were respectable. They made-believe. Carol was stimulated to cry:

“Let’s form a dramatic club and give a play! Shall we? It’s been so much fun tonight!”

They looked affable.

“Sure,” observed Sam Clark loyally.

“Oh, do let us! I think it would be lovely to present ‘Romeo and Juliet’!” yearned Ella Stowbody.

“Be a whale of a lot of fun,” Dr. Terry Gould granted.

“But if we did,” Carol cautioned, “it would be awfully silly to have amateur theatricals. We ought to paint our own scenery and everything, and really do something fine. There’d be a lot of hard work. Would you — would we all be punctual at rehearsals, do you suppose?”

“You bet!” “Sure.” “That’s the idea.” “Fellow ought to be prompt at rehearsals,” they all agreed.

“Then let’s meet next week and form the Gopher Prairie Dramatic Association!” Carol sang.

She drove home loving these friends who raced through moonlit snow, had Bohemian parties, and were about to create beauty in the theater. Everything was solved. She would be an authentic part of the town, yet escape the coma of the Village Virus. . . . She would be free of Kennicott again, without hurting him, without his knowing.

She had triumphed.

The moon was small and high now, and unheeding.

II

Though they had all been certain that they longed for the privilege of attending committee meetings and rehearsals, the dramatic association as definitely formed consisted only of Kennicott, Carol, Guy Pollock, Vida Sherwin, Ella Stowbody, the Harry Haydocks, the Dave Dyers, Raymie Wutherspoon, Dr. Terry Gould, and four new candidates: flirtatious Rita Simons, Dr. and Mrs. Harvey Dillon and Myrtle Cass, an uncomely but intense girl of nineteen. Of these fifteen only seven came to the first meeting. The rest telephoned their unparalleled regrets and engagements and illnesses, and announced that they would be present at all other meetings through eternity.

Carol was made president and director.

She had added the Dillons. Despite Kennicott’s apprehension the dentist and his wife had not been taken up by the Westlakes but had remained as definitely outside really smart society as Willis Woodford, who was teller, bookkeeper, and janitor in Stowbody’s bank. Carol had noted Mrs. Dillon dragging past the house during a bridge of the Jolly Seventeen, looking in with pathetic lips at the splendor of the accepted. She impulsively invited the Dillons to the dramatic association meeting, and when Kennicott was brusque to them she was unusually cordial, and felt virtuous.

That self-approval balanced her disappointment at the small- ness of the meeting, and her embarrassment during Raymie Wutherspoon’s repetitions of “The stage needs uplifting,” and “I believe that there are great lessons in some plays.”

Ella Stowbody, who was a professional, having studied elocution in Milwaukee, disapproved of Carol’s enthusiasm for recent plays. Miss Stowbody expressed the fundamental principle of the American drama: the only way to be artistic is to present Shakespeare. As no one listened to her she sat back and looked like Lady Macbeth.

III

The Little Theaters, which were to give piquancy to American drama three or four years later, were only in embryo. But of this fast coming revolt Carol had premonitions. She knew from some lost magazine article that in Dublin were innovators called The Irish Players. She knew confusedly that a man named Gordon Craig had painted scenery — or had he written plays? She felt that in the turbulence of the drama she was discovering a history more important than the commonplace chronicles which dealt with senators and their pompous puerilities. She had a sensation of familiarity; a dream of sitting in a Brussels cafe and going afterward to a tiny gay theater under a cathedral wall.

The advertisement in the Minneapolis paper leaped from the page to her eyes:

The Cosmos School of Music, Oratory, and Dramatic Art announces a program of four one-act plays by Schnitzler, Shaw, Yeats, and Lord Dunsany.

She had to be there! She begged Kennicott to “run down to the Cities” with her.

“Well, I don’t know. Be fun to take in a show, but why the deuce do you want to see those darn foreign plays, given by a lot of amateurs? Why don’t you wait for a regular play, later on? There’s going to be some corkers coming: ‘Lottie of Two–Gun Rancho,’ and ‘Cops and Crooks’— real Broadway stuff, with the New York casts. What’s this junk you want to see? Hm. ‘How He Lied to Her Husband.’ That doesn’t listen so bad. Sounds racy. And, uh, well, I could go to the motor show, I suppose. I’d like to see this new Hup roadster. Well ——”

She never knew which attraction made him decide.

She had four days of delightful worry — over the hole in her one good silk petticoat, the loss of a string of beads from her chiffon and brown velvet frock, the catsup stain on her best georgette crepe blouse. She wailed, “I haven’t a single solitary thing that’s fit to be seen in,” and enjoyed herself very much indeed.

Kennicott went about casually letting people know that he was “going to run down to the Cities and see some shows.”

As the train plodded through the gray prairie, on a windless day with the smoke from the engine clinging to the fields in giant cotton-rolls, in a low and writhing wall which shut off the snowy fields, she did not look out of the window. She closed her eyes and hummed, and did not know that she was humming.

She was the young poet attacking fame and Paris.

In the Minneapolis station the crowd of lumberjacks, farmers, and Swedish families with innumerous children and grandparents and paper parcels, their foggy crowding and their clamor confused her. She felt rustic in this once familiar city, after a year and a half of Gopher Prairie. She was certain that Kennicott was taking the wrong trolley-car. By dusk, the liquor warehouses, Hebraic clothing-shops, and lodging- houses on lower Hennepin Avenue were smoky, hideous, ill- tempered. She was battered by the noise and shuttling of the rush-hour traffic. When a clerk in an overcoat too closely fitted at the waist stared at her, she moved nearer to Kennicott’s arm. The clerk was flippant and urban. He was a superior person, used to this tumult. Was he laughing at her?

For a moment she wanted the secure quiet of Gopher Prairie.

In the hotel-lobby she was self-conscious. She was not used to hotels; she remembered with jealousy how often Juanita Haydock talked of the famous hotels in Chicago. She could not face the traveling salesmen, baronial in large leather chairs. She wanted people to believe that her husband and she were accustomed to luxury and chill elegance; she was faintly angry at him for the vulgar way in which, after signing the register “Dr. W. P. Kennicott & wife,” he bellowed at the clerk, “Got a nice room with bath for us, old man?” She gazed about haughtily, but as she discovered that no one was interested in her she felt foolish, and ashamed of her irritation.

She asserted, “This silly lobby is too florid,” and simultaneously she admired it: the onyx columns with gilt capitals, the crown-embroidered velvet curtains at the restaurant door, the silk-roped alcove where pretty girls perpetually waited for mysterious men, the two-pound boxes of candy and the variety of magazines at the news-stand. The hidden orchestra was lively. She saw a man who looked like a European diplomat, in a loose top-coat and a Homburg hat. A woman with a broadtail coat, a heavy lace veil, pearl earrings, and a close black hat entered the restaurant. “Heavens! That’s the first really smart woman I’ve seen in a year!” Carol exulted. She felt metropolitan.

But as she followed Kennicott to the elevator the coat- check girl, a confident young woman, with cheeks powdered like lime, and a blouse low and thin and furiously crimson, inspected her, and under that supercilious glance Carol was shy again. She unconsciously waited for the bellboy to precede her into the elevator. When he snorted “Go ahead!” she was mortified. He thought she was a hayseed, she worried.

The moment she was in their room, with the bellboy safely out of the way, she looked critically at Kennicott. For the first time in months she really saw him.

His clothes were too heavy and provincial. His decent gray suit, made by Nat Hicks of Gopher Prairie, might have been of sheet iron; it had no distinction of cut, no easy grace like the diplomat’s Burberry. His black shoes were blunt and not well polished. His scarf was a stupid brown. He needed a shave.

But she forgot her doubt as she realized the ingenuities of the room. She ran about, turning on the taps of the bathtub, which gushed instead of dribbling like the taps at home, snatching the new wash-rag out of its envelope of oiled paper, trying the rose-shaded light between the twin beds, pulling out the drawers of the kidney-shaped walnut desk to examine the engraved stationery, planning to write on it to every one she knew, admiring the claret-colored velvet armchair and the blue rug, testing the ice-water tap, and squealing happily when the water really did come out cold. She flung her arms about Kennicott, kissed him.

“Like it, old lady?”

“It’s adorable. It’s so amusing. I love you for bringing me. You really are a dear!”

He looked blankly indulgent, and yawned, and condescended, “That’s a pretty slick arrangement on the radiator, so you can adjust it at any temperature you want. Must take a big furnace to run this place. Gosh, I hope Bea remembers to turn off the drafts tonight.”

Under the glass cover of the dressing-table was a menu with the most enchanting dishes: breast of guinea hen De Vitresse, pommes de terre a la Russe, meringue Chantilly, gateaux Bruxelles.

“Oh, let’s —— I’m going to have a hot bath, and put on my new hat with the wool flowers, and let’s go down and eat for hours, and we’ll have a cocktail!” she chanted.

While Kennicott labored over ordering it was annoying to see him permit the waiter to be impertinent, but as the cocktail elevated her to a bridge among colored stars, as the oysters came in — not canned oysters in the Gopher Prairie fashion, but on the half-shell — she cried, “If you only knew how wonderful it is not to have had to plan this dinner, and order it at the butcher’s and fuss and think about it, and then watch Bea cook it! I feel so free. And to have new kinds of food, and different patterns of dishes and linen, and not worry about whether the pudding is being spoiled! Oh, this is a great moment for me!”

IV

They had all the experiences of provincials in a metropolis. After breakfast Carol bustled to a hair-dresser’s, bought gloves and a blouse, and importantly met Kennicott in front of an optician’s, in accordance with plans laid down, revised, and verified. They admired the diamonds and furs and frosty silverware and mahogany chairs and polished morocco sewing- boxes in shop-windows, and were abashed by the throngs in the department-stores, and were bullied by a clerk into buying too many shirts for Kennicott, and gaped at the “clever novelty perfumes — just in from New York.” Carol got three books on the theater, and spent an exultant hour in warning herself that she could not afford this rajah-silk frock, in thinking how envious it would make Juanita Haydock, in closing her eyes, and buying it. Kennicott went from shop to shop, earnestly hunting down a felt-covered device to keep the windshield of his car clear of rain.

They dined extravagantly at their hotel at night, and next morning sneaked round the corner to economize at a Childs’ Restaurant. They were tired by three in the afternoon, and dozed at the motion-pictures and said they wished they were back in Gopher Prairie — and by eleven in the evening they were again so lively that they went to a Chinese restaurant that was frequented by clerks and their sweethearts on pay-days. They sat at a teak and marble table eating Eggs Fooyung, and listened to a brassy automatic piano, and were altogether cosmopolitan.

On the street they met people from home — the McGanums. They laughed, shook hands repeatedly, and exclaimed, “Well, this is quite a coincidence!” They asked when the McGanums had come down, and begged for news of the town they had left two days before. Whatever the McGanums were at home, here they stood out as so superior to all the undistinguishable strangers absurdly hurrying past that the Kennicotts held them as long as they could. The McGanums said good-by as though they were going to Tibet instead of to the station to catch No. 7 north.

They explored Minneapolis. Kennicott was conversational and technical regarding gluten and cockle-cylinders and No. I Hard, when they were shown through the gray stone hulks and new cement elevators of the largest flour-mills in the world. They looked across Loring Park and the Parade to the towers of St. Mark’s and the Procathedral, and the red roofs of houses climbing Kenwood Hill. They drove about the chain of garden-circled lakes, and viewed the houses of the millers and lumbermen and real estate peers — the potentates of the expanding city. They surveyed the small eccentric bungalows with pergolas, the houses of pebbledash and tapestry brick with sleeping-porches above sun-parlors, and one vast incredible chateau fronting the Lake of the Isles. They tramped through a shining-new section of apartment-houses; not the tall bleak apartments of Eastern cities but low structures of cheerful yellow brick, in which each flat had its glass-enclosed porch with swinging couch and scarlet cushions and Russian brass bowls. Between a waste of tracks and a raw gouged hill they found poverty in staggering shanties.

They saw miles of the city which they had never known in their days of absorption in college. They were distinguished explorers, and they remarked, in great mutual esteem, “I bet Harry Haydock’s never seen the City like this! Why, he’d never have sense enough to study the machinery in the mills, or go through all these outlying districts. Wonder folks in Gopher Prairie wouldn’t use their legs and explore, the way we do!”

They had two meals with Carol’s sister, and were bored, and felt that intimacy which beatifies married people when they suddenly admit that they equally dislike a relative of either of them.

So it was with affection but also with weariness that they approached the evening on which Carol was to see the plays at the dramatic school. Kennicott suggested not going. “So darn tired from all this walking; don’t know but what we better turn in early and get rested up.” It was only from duty that Carol dragged him and herself out of the warm hotel, into a stinking trolley, up the brownstone steps of the converted residence which lugubriously housed the dramatic school.

V

They were in a long whitewashed hall with a clumsy draw- curtain across the front. The folding chairs were filled with people who looked washed and ironed: parents of the pupils, girl students, dutiful teachers.

“Strikes me it’s going to be punk. If the first play isn’t good, let’s beat it,” said Kennicott hopefully.

“All right,” she yawned. With hazy eyes she tried to read the lists of characters, which were hidden among lifeless advertisements of pianos, music-dealers, restaurants, candy.

She regarded the Schnitzler play with no vast interest. The actors moved and spoke stiffly. Just as its cynicism was beginning to rouse her village-dulled frivolity, it was over.

“Don’t think a whale of a lot of that. How about taking a sneak?” petitioned Kennicott.

“Oh, let’s try the next one, ‘How He Lied to Her Husband.’ ”

The Shaw conceit amused her, and perplexed Kennicott:

“Strikes me it’s darn fresh. Thought it would be racy. Don’t know as I think much of a play where a husband actually claims he wants a fellow to make love to his wife. No husband ever did that! Shall we shake a leg?”

“I want to see this Yeats thing, ‘Land of Heart’s Desire.’ I used to love it in college.” She was awake now, and urgent. “I know you didn’t care so much for Yeats when I read him aloud to you, but you just see if you don’t adore him on the stage.”

Most of the cast were as unwieldy as oak chairs marching, and the setting was an arty arrangement of batik scarfs and heavy tables, but Maire Bruin was slim as Carol, and larger- eyed, and her voice was a morning bell. In her, Carol lived, and on her lifting voice was transported from this sleepy small- town husband and all the rows of polite parents to the stilly loft of a thatched cottage where in a green dimness, beside a window caressed by linden branches, she bent over a chronicle of twilight women and the ancient gods.

“Well — gosh — nice kid played that girl — good-looker,” said Kennicott. “Want to stay for the last piece? Heh?”

She shivered. She did not answer.

The curtain was again drawn aside. On the stage they saw nothing but long green curtains and a leather chair. Two young men in brown robes like furniture-covers were gesturing vacuously and droning cryptic sentences full of repetitions.

It was Carol’s first hearing of Dunsany. She sympathized with the restless Kennicott as he felt in his pocket for a cigar and unhappily put it back.

Without understanding when or how, without a tangible change in the stilted intoning of the stage-puppets, she was conscious of another time and place.

Stately and aloof among vainglorious tiring-maids, a queen in robes that murmured on the marble floor, she trod the gallery of a crumbling palace. In the courtyard, elephants trumpeted, and swart men with beards dyed crimson stood with blood-stained hands folded upon their hilts, guarding the caravan from El Sharnak, the camels with Tyrian stuffs of topaz and cinnabar. Beyond the turrets of the outer wall the jungle glared and shrieked, and the sun was furious above drenched orchids. A youth came striding through the steel- bossed doors, the sword-bitten doors that were higher than ten tall men. He was in flexible mail, and under the rim of his planished morion were amorous curls. His hand was out to her; before she touched it she could feel its warmth ——

“Gosh all hemlock! What the dickens is all this stuff about, Carrie?”

She was no Syrian queen. She was Mrs. Dr. Kennicott. She fell with a jolt into a whitewashed hall and sat looking at two scared girls and a young man in wrinkled tights.

Kennicott fondly rambled as they left the hall:

“What the deuce did that last spiel mean? Couldn’t make head or tail of it. If that’s highbrow drama, give me a cow- puncher movie, every time! Thank God, that’s over, and we can get to bed. Wonder if we wouldn’t make time by walking over to Nicollet to take a car? One thing I will say for that dump: they had it warm enough. Must have a big hot-air furnace, I guess. Wonder how much coal it takes to run ’em through the winter?”

In the car he affectionately patted her knee, and he was for a second the striding youth in armor; then he was Doc Kennicott of Gopher Prairie, and she was recaptured by Main Street. Never, not all her life, would she behold jungles and the tombs of kings. There were strange things in the world, they really existed; but she would never see them.

She would recreate them in plays!

She would make the dramatic association understand her aspiration. They would, surely they would ——

She looked doubtfully at the impenetrable reality of yawning trolley conductor and sleepy passengers and placards advertising soap and underwear.

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38