Main Street, by Sinclair Lewis

Chapter 26

CAROL’S liveliest interest was in her walks with the baby. Hugh wanted to know what the box-elder tree said, and what the Ford garage said, and what the big cloud said, and she told him, with a feeling that she was not in the least making up stories, but discovering the souls of things. They had an especial fondness for the hitching-post in front of the mill. It was a brown post, stout and agreeable; the smooth leg of it held the sunlight, while its neck, grooved by hitching- straps, tickled one’s fingers. Carol had never been awake to the earth except as a show of changing color and great satisfying masses; she had lived in people and in ideas about having ideas; but Hugh’s questions made her attentive to the comedies of sparrows, robins, blue jays, yellowhammers; she regained her pleasure in the arching flight of swallows, and added to it a solicitude about their nests and family squabbles.

She forgot her seasons of boredom. She said to Hugh, “We’re two fat disreputable old minstrels roaming round the world,” and he echoed her, “Roamin’ round — roamin’ round.”

The high adventure, the secret place to which they both fled joyously, was the house of Miles and Bea and Olaf Bjornstam.

Kennicott steadily disapproved of the Bjornstams. He protested, “What do you want to talk to that crank for?” He hinted that a former “Swede hired girl” was low company for the son of Dr. Will Kennicott. She did not explain. She did not quite understand it herself; did not know that in the Bjornstams she found her friends, her club, her sympathy and her ration of blessed cynicism. For a time the gossip of Juanita Haydock and the Jolly Seventeen had been a refuge from the droning of Aunt Bessie, but the relief had not continued. The young matrons made her nervous. They talked so loud, always so loud. They filled a room with clashing cackle; their jests and gags they repeated nine times over. Unconsciously, she had discarded the Jolly Seventeen, Guy Pollock, Vida, and every one save Mrs. Dr. Westlake and the friends whom she did not clearly know as friends — the Bjornstams.

To Hugh, the Red Swede was the most heroic and powerful person in the world. With unrestrained adoration he trotted after while Miles fed the cows, chased his one pig — an animal of lax and migratory instincts — or dramatically slaughtered a chicken. And to Hugh, Olaf was lord among mortal men, less stalwart than the old monarch, King Miles, but more understanding of the relations and values of things, of small sticks, lone playing-cards, and irretrievably injured hoops.

Carol saw, though she did not admit, that Olaf was not only more beautiful than her own dark child, but more gracious. Olaf was a Norse chieftain: straight, sunny-haired, large- limbed, resplendently amiable to his subjects. Hugh was a vulgarian; a bustling business man. It was Hugh that bounced and said “Let’s play”; Olaf that opened luminous blue eyes and agreed “All right,” in condescending gentleness. If Hugh batted him — and Hugh did bat him — Olaf was unafraid but shocked. In magnificent solitude he marched toward the house, while Hugh bewailed his sin and the overclouding of august favor.

The two friends played with an imperial chariot which Miles had made out of a starch-box and four red spools; together they stuck switches into a mouse-hole, with vast satisfaction though entirely without known results.

Bea, the chubby and humming Bea, impartially gave cookies and scoldings to both children, and if Carol refused a cup of coffee and a wafer of buttered knackebrod, she was desolated.

Miles had done well with his dairy. He had six cows, two hundred chickens, a cream separator, a Ford truck. In the spring he had built a two-room addition to his shack. That illustrious building was to Hugh a carnival. Uncle Miles did the most spectacular, unexpected things: ran up the ladder; stood on the ridge-pole, waving a hammer and singing something about “To arms, my citizens”; nailed shingles faster than Aunt Bessie could iron handkerchiefs; and lifted a two- by-six with Hugh riding on one end and Olaf on the other. Uncle Miles’s most ecstatic trick was to make figures not on paper but right on a new pine board, with the broadest softest pencil in the world. There was a thing worth seeing!

The tools! In his office Father had tools fascinating in their shininess and curious shapes, but they were sharp, they were something called sterized, and they distinctly were not for boys to touch. In fact it was a good dodge to volunteer “I must not touch,” when you looked at the tools on the glass shelves in Father’s office. But Uncle Miles, who was a person altogether superior to Father, let you handle all his kit except the saws. There was a hammer with a silver head; there was a metal thing like a big L; there was a magic instrument, very precious, made out of costly red wood and gold, with a tube which contained a drop — no, it wasn’t a drop, it was a nothing, which lived in the water, but the nothing LOOKED like a drop, and it ran in a frightened way up and down the tube, no matter how cautiously you tilted the magic instrument. And there were nails, very different and clever — big valiant spikes, middle-sized ones which were not very interesting, and shingle- nails much jollier than the fussed-up fairies in the yellow book.

II

While he had worked on the addition Miles had talked frankly to Carol. He admitted now that so long as he stayed in Gopher Prairie he would remain a pariah. Bea’s Lutheran friends were as much offended by his agnostic gibes as the merchants by his radicalism. “And I can’t seem to keep my mouth shut. I think I’m being a baa-lamb, and not springing any theories wilder than ‘c-a-t spells cat,’ but when folks have gone, I re’lize I’ve been stepping on their pet religious corns. Oh, the mill foreman keeps dropping in, and that Danish shoemaker, and one fellow from Elder’s factory, and a few Svenskas, but you know Bea: big good-hearted wench like her wants a lot of folks around — likes to fuss over ’em — never satisfied unless she tiring herself out making coffee for somebody.

“Once she kidnapped me and drug me to the Methodist Church. I goes in, pious as Widow Bogart, and sits still and never cracks a smile while the preacher is favoring us with his misinformation on evolution. But afterwards, when the old stalwarts were pumphandling everybody at the door and calling ’em ‘Brother’ and ‘Sister,’ they let me sail right by with nary a clinch. They figure I’m the town badman. Always will be, I guess. It’ll have to be Olaf who goes on. ‘And sometimes —— Blamed if I don’t feel like coming out and saying, ‘I’ve been conservative. Nothing to it. Now I’m going to start something in these rotten one-horse lumber- camps west of town.’ But Bea’s got me hypnotized. Lord, Mrs. Kennicott, do you re’lize what a jolly, square, faithful woman she is? And I love Olaf —— Oh well, I won’t go and get sentimental on you.

“Course I’ve had thoughts of pulling up stakes and going West. Maybe if they didn’t know it beforehand, they wouldn’t find out I’d ever been guilty of trying to think for myself. But — oh, I’ve worked hard, and built up this dairy business, and I hate to start all over again, and move Bea and the kid into another one-room shack. That’s how they get us! Encourage us to be thrifty and own our own houses, and then, by golly, they’ve got us; they know we won’t dare risk everything by committing lez — what is it? lez majesty? — I mean they know we won’t be hinting around that if we had a co-operative bank, we could get along without Stowbody. Well —— As long as I can sit and play pinochle with Bea, and tell whoppers to Olaf about his daddy’s adventures in the woods, and how he snared a wapaloosie and knew Paul Bunyan, why, I don’t mind being a bum. It’s just for them that I mind. Say! Say! Don’t whisper a word to Bea, but when I get this addition done, I’m going to buy her a phonograph!”

He did.

While she was busy with the activities her work-hungry muscles found — washing, ironing, mending, baking, dusting, preserving, plucking a chicken, painting the sink; tasks which, because she was Miles’s full partner, were exciting and creative — Bea listened to the phonograph records with rapture like that of cattle in a warm stable. The addition gave her a kitchen with a bedroom above. The original one-room shack was now a living-room, with the phonograph, a genuine leather- upholstered golden-oak rocker, and a picture of Governor John Johnson.

In late July Carol went to the Bjornstams’ desirous of a chance to express her opinion of Beavers and Calibrees and Joralemons. She found Olaf abed, restless from a slight fever, and Bea flushed and dizzy but trying to keep up her work. She lured Miles aside and worried:

“They don’t look at all well. What’s the matter?”

“Their stomachs are out of whack. I wanted to call in Doc Kennicott, but Bea thinks the doc doesn’t like us — she thinks maybe he’s sore because you come down here. But I’m getting worried.”

“I’m going to call the doctor at once.”

She yearned over Olaf. His lambent eyes were stupid, he moaned, he rubbed his forehead.

“Have they been eating something that’s been bad for them?” she fluttered to Miles.

“Might be bum water. I’ll tell you: We used to get our water at Oscar Eklund’s place, over across the street, but Oscar kept dinging at me, and hinting I was a tightwad not to dig a well of my own. One time he said, ‘Sure, you socialists are great on divvying up other folks’ money — and water!’ I knew if he kept it up there’d be a fuss, and I ain’t safe to have around, once a fuss starts; I’m likely to forget myself and let loose with a punch in the snoot. I offered to pay Oscar but he refused — he’d rather have the chance to kid me. So I starts getting water down at Mrs. Fageros’s, in the hollow there, and I don’t believe it’s real good. Figuring to dig my own well this fall.”

One scarlet word was before Carol’s eyes while she listened She fled to Kennicott’s office. He gravely heard her out; nodded, said, “Be right over.”

He examined Bea and Olaf. He shook his head. “Yes. Looks to me like typhoid.”

“Golly, I’ve seen typhoid in lumber-camps,” groaned Miles, all the strength dripping out of him. “Have they got it very bad?”

“Oh, we’ll take good care of them,” said Kennicott, and for the first time in their acquaintance he smiled on Miles and clapped his shoulder.

“Won’t you need a nurse?” demanded Carol.

“Why ——” To Miles, Kennicott hinted, “Couldn’t you get Bea’s cousin, Tina?”

“She’s down at the old folks’, in the country.”

“Then let me do it!” Carol insisted. “They need some one to cook for them, and isn’t it good to give them sponge baths, in typhoid?”

“Yes. All right.” Kennicott was automatic; he was the official, the physician. “I guess probably it would be hard to get a nurse here in town just now. Mrs. Stiver is busy with an obstetrical case, and that town nurse of yours is off on vacation, ain’t she? All right, Bjornstam can spell you at night.”

All week, from eight each morning till midnight, Carol fed them, bathed them, smoothed sheets, took temperatures. Miles refused to let her cook. Terrified, pallid, noiseless in stocking feet, he did the kitchen work and the sweeping, his big red hands awkwardly careful. Kennicott came in three times a day, unchangingly tender and hopeful in the sick- room, evenly polite to Miles.

Carol understood how great was her love for her friends. It bore her through; it made her arm steady and tireless to bathe them. What exhausted her was the sight of Bea and Olaf turned into flaccid invalids, uncomfortably flushed after taking food, begging for the healing of sleep at night.

During the second week Olaf’s powerful legs were flabby. Spots of a viciously delicate pink came out on his chest and back. His cheeks sank. He looked frightened. His tongue was brown and revolting. His confident voice dwindled to a bewildered murmur, ceaseless and racking.

Bea had stayed on her feet too long at the beginning. The moment Kennicott had ordered her to bed she had begun to collapse. One early evening she startled them by screaming, in an intense abdominal pain, and within half an hour she was in a delirium. Till dawn Carol was with her, and not all of Bea’s groping through the blackness of half-delirious pain was so pitiful to Carol as the way in which Miles silently peered into the room from the top of the narrow stairs. Carol slept three hours next morning, and ran back. Bea was altogether delirious but she muttered nothing save, “Olaf — ve have such a good time ——”

At ten, while Carol was preparing an ice-bag in the kitchen, Miles answered a knock. At the front door she saw Vida Sherwin, Maud Dyer, and Mrs. Zitterel, wife of the Baptist pastor. They were carrying grapes, and women’s- magazines, magazines with high-colored pictures and optimistic fiction.

“We just heard your wife was sick. We’ve come to see if there isn’t something we can do,” chirruped Vida.

Miles looked steadily at the three women. “You’re too late. You can’t do nothing now. Bea’s always kind of hoped that you folks would come see her. She wanted to have a chance and be friends. She used to sit waiting for somebody to knock. I’ve seen her sitting here, waiting. Now —— Oh, you ain’t worth God-damning.” He shut the door.

All day Carol watched Olaf’s strength oozing. He was emaciated. His ribs were grim clear lines, his skin was clammy, his pulse was feeble but terrifyingly rapid. It beat — beat — beat in a drum-roll of death. Late that afternoon he sobbed, and died.

Bea did not know it. She was delirious. Next morning, when she went, she did not know that Olaf would no longer swing his lath sword on the door-step, no longer rule his subjects of the cattle-yard; that Miles’s son would not go East to college.

Miles, Carol, Kennicott were silent. They washed the bodies together, their eyes veiled.

“Go home now and sleep. You’re pretty tired. I can’t ever pay you back for what you done,” Miles whispered to Carol.

“Yes. But I’ll be back here tomorrow. Go with you to the funeral,” she said laboriously.

When the time for the funeral came, Carol was in bed, collapsed. She assumed that neighbors would go. They had not told her that word of Miles’s rebuff to Vida had spread through town, a cyclonic fury.

It was only by chance that, leaning on her elbow in bed, she glanced through the window and saw the funeral of Bea and Olaf. There was no music, no carriages. There was only Miles Bjornstam, in his black wedding-suit, walking quite alone, head down, behind the shabby hearse that bore the bodies of his wife and baby.

An hour after, Hugh came into her room crying, and when she said as cheerily as she could, “What is it, dear?” he besought, “Mummy, I want to go play with Olaf.”

That afternoon Juanita Haydock dropped in to brighten Carol. She said, “Too bad about this Bea that was your hired girl. But I don’t waste any sympathy on that man of hers. Everybody says he drank too much, and treated his family awful, and that’s how they got sick.”

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