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.”
“Vell ja, I t’ink she got fever.”
“Which side is the pain on?”
“Das Schmertz — die Weh — which side is it on? Here?”
“So. Right here it is.”
“Any rigidity there?”
“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.
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.”
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!”
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.
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.
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.”
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.
She tried to free herself from the speculation and disillusionment which had been twitching at her; sought to dismiss all the opinionation of an insurgent era. She wanted to shine upon the veal-faced bristly-bearded Lyman Cass as much as upon Miles Bjornstam or Guy Pollock. She gave a reception for the Thanatopsis Club. But her real acquiring of merit was in calling upon that Mrs. Bogart whose gossipy good opinion was so valuable to a doctor.
Though the Bogart house was next door she had entered it but three times. Now she put on her new moleskin cap, which made her face small and innocent, she rubbed off the traces of a lip-stick — and fled across the alley before her admirable resolution should sneak away.
The age of houses, like the age of men, has small relation to their years. The dull-green cottage of the good Widow Bogart was twenty years old, but it had the antiquity of Cheops, and the smell of mummy-dust. Its neatness rebuked the street. The two stones by the path were painted yellow; the outhouse was so overmodestly masked with vines and lattice that it was not concealed at all; the last iron dog remaining in Gopher Prairie stood among whitewashed conch-shells upon the lawn. The hallway was dismayingly scrubbed; the kitchen was an exercise in mathematics, with problems worked out in equidistant chairs.
The parlor was kept for visitors. Carol suggested, “Let’s sit in the kitchen. Please don’t trouble to light the parlor stove.”
“No trouble at all! My gracious, and you coming so seldom and all, and the kitchen is a perfect sight, I try to keep it clean, but Cy will track mud all over it, I’ve spoken to him about it a hundred times if I’ve spoken once, no, you sit right there, dearie, and I’ll make a fire, no trouble at all, practically no trouble at all.”
Mrs. Bogart groaned, rubbed her joints, and repeatedly dusted her hands while she made the fire, and when Carol tried to help she lamented, “Oh, it doesn’t matter; guess I ain’t good for much but toil and workin’ anyway; seems as though that’s what a lot of folks think.”
The parlor was distinguished by an expanse of rag carpet from which, as they entered, Mrs. Bogart hastily picked one sad dead fly. In the center of the carpet was a rug depicting a red Newfoundland dog, reclining in a green and yellow daisy field and labeled “Our Friend.” The parlor organ, tall and thin, was adorned with a mirror partly circular, partly square, and partly diamond-shaped, and with brackets holding a pot of geraniums, a mouth-organ, and a copy of “The Oldtime Hymnal.” On the center table was a Sears–Roebuck mail-order catalogue, a silver frame with photographs of the Baptist Church and of an elderly clergyman, and an aluminum tray containing a rattlesnake’s rattle and a broken spectacle-lens.
Mrs. Bogart spoke of the eloquence of the Reverend Mr. Zitterel, the coldness of cold days, the price of poplar wood, Dave Dyer’s new hair-cut, and Cy Bogart’s essential piety. “As I said to his Sunday School teacher, Cy may be a little wild, but that’s because he’s got so much better brains than a lot of these boys, and this farmer that claims he caught Cy stealing ‘beggies, is a liar, and I ought to have the law on him.”
Mrs. Bogart went thoroughly into the rumor that the girl waiter at Billy’s Lunch was not all she might be — or, rather, was quite all she might be.
“My lands, what can you expect when everybody knows what her mother was? And if these traveling salesmen would let her alone she would be all right, though I certainly don’t believe she ought to be allowed to think she can pull the wool over our eyes. The sooner she’s sent to the school for incorrigible girls down at Sauk Centre, the better for all and —— Won’t you just have a cup of coffee, Carol dearie, I’m sure you won’t mind old Aunty Bogart calling you by your first name when you think how long I’ve known Will, and I was such a friend of his dear lovely mother when she lived here and — was that fur cap expensive? But —— Don’t you think it’s awful, the way folks talk in this town?”
Mrs. Bogart hitched her chair nearer. Her large face, with its disturbing collection of moles and lone black hairs, wrinkled cunningly. She showed her decayed teeth in a reproving smile, and in the confidential voice of one who scents stale bedroom scandal she breathed:
“I just don’t see how folks can talk and act like they do. You don’t know the things that go on under cover. This town — why it’s only the religious training I’ve given Cy that’s kept him so innocent of — things. Just the other day —— I never pay no attention to stories, but I heard it mighty good and straight that Harry Haydock is carrying on with a girl that clerks in a store down in Minneapolis, and poor Juanita not knowing anything about it — though maybe it’s the judgment of God, because before she married Harry she acted up with more than one boy —— Well, I don’t like to say it, and maybe I ain’t up-to-date, like Cy says, but I always believed a lady shouldn’t even give names to all sorts of dreadful things, but just the same I know there was at least one case where Juanita and a boy — well, they were just dreadful. And — and —— Then there’s that Ole Jenson the grocer, that thinks he’s so plaguey smart, and I know he made up to a farmer’s wife and —— And this awful man Bjornstam that does chores, and Nat Hicks and ——”
There was, it seemed, no person in town who was not living a life of shame except Mrs. Bogart, and naturally she resented it.
She knew. She had always happened to be there. Once, she whispered, she was going by when an indiscreet window- shade had been left up a couple of inches. Once she had noticed a man and woman holding hands, and right at a Methodist sociable!
“Another thing —— Heaven knows I never want to start trouble, but I can’t help what I see from my back steps, and I notice your hired girl Bea carrying on with the grocery boys and all ——”
“Mrs. Bogart! I’d trust Bea as I would myself!”
“Oh, dearie, you don’t understand me! I’m sure she’s a good girl. I mean she’s green, and I hope that none of these horrid young men that there are around town will get her into trouble! It’s their parents’ fault, letting them run wild and hear evil things. If I had my way there wouldn’t be none of them, not boys nor girls neither, allowed to know anything about — about things till they was married. It’s terrible the bald way that some folks talk. It just shows and gives away what awful thoughts they got inside them, and there’s nothing can cure them except coming right to God and kneeling down like I do at prayer-meeting every Wednesday evening, and saying, ‘O God, I would be a miserable sinner except for thy grace.’
“I’d make every last one of these brats go to Sunday School and learn to think about nice things ‘stead of about cigarettes and goings-on — and these dances they have at the lodges are the worst thing that ever happened to this town, lot of young men squeezing girls and finding out —— Oh, it’s dreadful. I’ve told the mayor he ought to put a stop to them and —— There was one boy in this town, I don’t want to be suspicious or uncharitable but ——”
It was half an hour before Carol escaped.
She stopped on her own porch and thought viciously:
“If that woman is on the side of the angels, then I have no choice; I must be on the side of the devil. But — isn’t she like me? She too wants to ‘reform the town’! She too criticizes everybody! She too thinks the men are vulgar and limited! AM I LIKE HER? This is ghastly!”
That evening she did not merely consent to play cribbage with Kennicott; she urged him to play; and she worked up a hectic interest in land-deals and Sam Clark.
In courtship days Kennicott had shown her a photograph of Nels Erdstrom’s baby and log cabin, but she had never seen the Erdstroms. They had become merely “patients of the doctor.” Kennicott telephoned her on a mid-December afternoon, “Want to throw your coat on and drive out to Erdstrom’s with me? Fairly warm. Nels got the jaundice.”
“Oh yes!” She hastened to put on woolen stockings, high boots, sweater, muffler, cap, mittens.
The snow was too thick and the ruts frozen too hard for the motor. They drove out in a clumsy high carriage. Tucked over them was a blue woolen cover, prickly to her wrists, and outside of it a buffalo robe, humble and moth-eaten now, used ever since the bison herds had streaked the prairie a few miles to the west.
The scattered houses between which they passed in town were small and desolate in contrast to the expanse of huge snowy yards and wide street. They crossed the railroad tracks, and instantly were in the farm country. The big piebald horses snorted clouds of steam, and started to trot. The carriage squeaked in rhythm. Kennicott drove with clucks of “There boy, take it easy!” He was thinking. He paid no attention to Carol. Yet it was he who commented, “Pretty nice, over there,” as they approached an oak-grove where shifty winter sunlight quivered in the hollow between two snow-drifts.
They drove from the natural prairie to a cleared district which twenty years ago had been forest. The country seemed to stretch unchanging to the North Pole: low hill, brush- scraggly bottom, reedy creek, muskrat mound, fields with frozen brown clods thrust up through the snow.
Her ears and nose were pinched; her breath frosted her collar; her fingers ached.
“Getting colder,” she said.
That was all their conversation for three miles. Yet she was happy.
They reached Nels Erdstrom’s at four, and with a throb she recognized the courageous venture which had lured her to Gopher Prairie: the cleared fields, furrows among stumps, a log cabin chinked with mud and roofed with dry hay. But Nels had prospered. He used the log cabin as a barn; and a new house reared up, a proud, unwise, Gopher Prairie house, the more naked and ungraceful in its glossy white paint and pink trimmings. Every tree had been cut down. The house was so unsheltered, so battered by the wind, so bleakly thrust out into the harsh clearing, that Carol shivered. But they were welcomed warmly enough in the kitchen, with its crisp new plaster, its black and nickel range, its cream separator in a corner.
Mrs. Erdstrom begged her to sit in the parlor, where there was a phonograph and an oak and leather davenport, the prairie farmer’s proofs of social progress, but she dropped down by the kitchen stove and insisted, “Please don’t mind me.” When Mrs. Erdstrom had followed the doctor out of the room Carol glanced in a friendly way at the grained pine cupboard, the framed Lutheran Konfirmations Attest, the traces of fried eggs and sausages on the dining table against the wall, and a jewel among calendars, presenting not only a lithographic young woman with cherry lips, and a Swedish advertisement of Axel Egge’s grocery, but also a thermometer and a match- holder.
She saw that a boy of four or five was staring at her from the hall, a boy in gingham shirt and faded corduroy trousers, but large-eyed, firm-mouthed, wide-browed. He vanished, then peeped in again, biting his knuckles, turning his shoulder toward her in shyness.
Didn’t she remember — what was it? — Kennicott sitting beside her at Fort Snelling, urging, “See how scared that baby is. Needs some woman like you.”
Magic had fluttered about her then — magic of sunset and cool air and the curiosity of lovers. She held out her hands as much to that sanctity as to the boy.
He edged into the room, doubtfully sucking his thumb.
“Hello,” she said. “What’s your name?”
“Hee, hee, hee!”
“You’re quite right. I agree with you. Silly people like me always ask children their names.”
“Hee, hee, hee!”
“Come here and I’ll tell you the story of — well, I don’t know what it will be about, but it will have a slim heroine and a Prince Charming.”
He stood stoically while she spun nonsense. His giggling ceased. She was winning him. Then the telephone bell — two long rings, one short.
Mrs. Erdstrom galloped into the room, shrieked into the transmitter, “Vell? Yes, yes, dis is Erdstrom’s place! Heh? Oh, you vant de doctor?”
Kennicott appeared, growled into the telephone:
“Well, what do you want? Oh, hello Dave; what do you want? Which Morgenroth’s? Adolph’s? All right. Amputation? Yuh, I see. Say, Dave, get Gus to harness up and take my surgical kit down there — and have him take some chloroform. I’ll go straight down from here. May not get home tonight. You can get me at Adolph’s. Huh? No, Carrie can give the anesthetic, I guess. G’-by. Huh? No; tell me about that tomorrow — too damn many people always listening in on this farmers’ line.”
He turned to Carol. “Adolph Morgenroth, farmer ten miles southwest of town, got his arm crushed-fixing his cow-shed and a post caved in on him — smashed him up pretty bad — may have to amputate, Dave Dyer says. Afraid we’ll have to go right from here. Darn sorry to drag you clear down there with me ——”
“Please do. Don’t mind me a bit.”
“Think you could give the anesthetic? Usually have my driver do it.”
“If you’ll tell me how.”
“All right. Say, did you hear me putting one over on these goats that are always rubbering in on party-wires? I hope they heard me! Well. . . . Now, Bessie, don’t you worry about Nels. He’s getting along all right. Tomorrow you or one of the neighbors drive in and get this prescription filled at Dyer’s. Give him a teaspoonful every four hours. Good- by. Hel-lo! Here’s the little fellow! My Lord, Bessie, it ain’t possible this is the fellow that used to be so sickly? Why, say, he’s a great big strapping Svenska now — going to be bigger ‘n his daddy!”
Kennicott’s bluffness made the child squirm with a delight which Carol could not evoke. It was a humble wife who followed the busy doctor out to the carriage, and her ambition was not to play Rachmaninoff better, nor to build town halls, but to chuckle at babies.
The sunset was merely a flush of rose on a dome of silver, with oak twigs and thin poplar branches against it, but a silo on the horizon changed from a red tank to a tower of violet misted over with gray. The purple road vanished, and without lights, in the darkness of a world destroyed, they swayed on — toward nothing.
It was a bumpy cold way to the Morgenroth farm, and she was asleep when they arrived.
Here was no glaring new house with a proud phonograph, but a low whitewashed kitchen smelling of cream and cabbage. Adolph Morgenroth was lying on a couch in the rarely used dining-room. His heavy work-scarred wife was shaking her hands in anxiety.
Carol felt that Kennicott would do something magnificent and startling. But he was casual. He greeted the man, “Well, well, Adolph, have to fix you up, eh?” Quietly, to the wife, “Hat die drug store my schwartze bag hier geschickt? So — schon. Wie viel Uhr ist ‘s? Sieben? Nun, lassen uns ein wenig supper zuerst haben. Got any of that good beer left — giebt ‘s noch Bier?”
He had supped in four minutes. His coat off, his sleeves rolled up, he was scrubbing his hands in a tin basin in the sink, using the bar of yellow kitchen soap.
Carol had not dared to look into the farther room while she labored over the supper of beer, rye bread, moist cornbeef and cabbage, set on the kitchen table. The man in there was groaning. In her one glance she had seen that his blue flannel shirt was open at a corded tobacco-brown neck, the hollows of which were sprinkled with thin black and gray hairs. He was covered with a sheet, like a corpse, and outside the sheet was his right arm, wrapped in towels stained with blood.
But Kennicott strode into the other room gaily, and she followed him. With surprising delicacy in his large fingers he unwrapped the towels and revealed an arm which, below the elbow, was a mass of blood and raw flesh. The man bellowed. The room grew thick about her; she was very seasick; she fled to a chair in the kitchen. Through the haze of nausea she heard Kennicott grumbling, “Afraid it will have to come off, Adolph. What did you do? Fall on a reaper blade? We’ll fix it right up. Carrie! CAROL!”
She couldn’t — she couldn’t get up. Then she was up, her knees like water, her stomach revolving a thousand times a second, her eyes filmed, her ears full of roaring. She couldn’t reach the dining-room. She was going to faint. Then she was in the dining-room, leaning against the wall, trying to smile, flushing hot and cold along her chest and sides, while Kennicott mumbled, “Say, help Mrs. Morgenroth and me carry him in on the kitchen table. No, first go out and shove those two tables together, and put a blanket on them and a clean sheet.”
It was salvation to push the heavy tables, to scrub them, to be exact in placing the sheet. Her head cleared; she was able to look calmly in at her husband and the farmwife while they undressed the wailing man, got him into a clean nightgown, and washed his arm. Kennicott came to lay out his instruments. She realized that, with no hospital facilities, yet with no worry about it, her husband — HER HUSBAND— was going to perform a surgical operation, that miraculous boldness of which one read in stories about famous surgeons.
She helped them to move Adolph into the kitchen. The man was in such a funk that he would not use his legs. He was heavy, and smelled of sweat and the stable. But she put her arm about his waist, her sleek head by his chest; she tugged at him; she clicked her tongue in imitation of Kennicott’s cheerful noises.
When Adolph was on the table Kennicott laid a hemispheric steel and cotton frame on his face; suggested to Carol, “Now you sit here at his head and keep the ether dripping — about this fast, see? I’ll watch his breathing. Look who’s here! Real anesthetist! Ochsner hasn’t got a better one! Class, eh? . . . Now, now, Adolph, take it easy. This won’t hurt you a bit. Put you all nice and asleep and it won’t hurt a bit. Schweig’ mal! Bald schlaft man grat wie ein Kind. So! So! Bald geht’s besser!”
As she let the ether drip, nervously trying to keep the rhythm that Kennicott had indicated, Carol stared at her husband with the abandon of hero-worship.
He shook his head. “Bad light — bad light. Here, Mrs. Morgenroth, you stand right here and hold this lamp. Hier, und dieses — dieses lamp halten — so!”
By that streaky glimmer he worked, swiftly, at ease. The room was still. Carol tried to look at him, yet not look at the seeping blood, the crimson slash, the vicious scalpel. The ether fumes were sweet, choking. Her head seemed to be floating away from her body. Her arm was feeble.
It was not the blood but the grating of the surgical saw on the living bone that broke her, and she knew that she had been fighting off nausea, that she was beaten. She was lost in dizziness. She heard Kennicott’s voice
“Sick? Trot outdoors couple minutes. Adolph will stay under now.”
She was fumbling at a door-knob which whirled in insulting circles; she was on the stoop, gasping, forcing air into her chest, her head clearing. As she returned she caught the scene as a whole: the cavernous kitchen, two milk-cans a leaden patch by the wall, hams dangling from a beam, bats of light at the stove door, and in the center, illuminated by a small glass lamp held by a frightened stout woman, Dr. Kennicott bending over a body which was humped under a sheet — the surgeon, his bare arms daubed with blood, his hands, in pale- yellow rubber gloves, loosening the tourniquet, his face without emotion save when he threw up his head and clucked at the farmwife, “Hold that light steady just a second more — noch blos esn wenig.”
“He speaks a vulgar, common, incorrect German of life and death and birth and the soil. I read the French and German of sentimental lovers and Christmas garlands. And I thought that it was I who had the culture!” she worshiped as she returned to her place.
After a time he snapped, “That’s enough. Don’t give him any more ether.” He was concentrated on tying an artery. His gruffness seemed heroic to her.
As he shaped the flap of flesh she murmured, “Oh, you ARE wonderful!”
He was surprised. “Why, this is a cinch. Now if it had been like last week —— Get me some more water. Now last week I had a case with an ooze in the peritoneal cavity, and by golly if it wasn’t a stomach ulcer that I hadn’t suspected and —— There. Say, I certainly am sleepy. Let’s turn in here. Too late to drive home. And tastes to me like a storm coming.”
They slept on a feather bed with their fur coats over them; in the morning they broke ice in the pitcher — the vast flowered and gilt pitcher.
Kennicott’s storm had not come. When they set out it was hazy and growing warmer. After a mile she saw that he was studying a dark cloud in the north. He urged the horses to the run. But she forgot his unusual haste in wonder at the tragic landscape. The pale snow, the prickles of old stubble, and the clumps of ragged brush faded into a gray obscurity. Under the hillocks were cold shadows. The willows about a farmhouse were agitated by the rising wind, and the patches of bare wood where the bark had peeled away were white as the flesh of a leper. The snowy slews were of a harsh flatness. The whole land was cruel, and a climbing cloud of slate-edged blackness dominated the sky.
“Guess we’re about in for a blizzard,” speculated Kennicott “We can make Ben McGonegal’s, anyway.”
“Blizzard? Really? Why —— But still we used to think they were fun when I was a girl. Daddy had to stay home from court, and we’d stand at the window and watch the snow.”
“Not much fun on the prairie. Get lost. Freeze to death. Take no chances.” He chirruped at the horses. They were flying now, the carriage rocking on the hard ruts.
The whole air suddenly crystallized into large damp flakes. The horses and the buffalo robe were covered with snow; her face was wet; the thin butt of the whip held a white ridge. The air became colder. The snowflakes were harder; they shot in level lines, clawing at her face.
She could not see a hundred feet ahead.
Kennicott was stern. He bent forward, the reins firm in his coonskin gauntlets. She was certain that he would get through. He always got through things.
Save for his presence, the world and all normal living disappeared. They were lost in the boiling snow. He leaned close to bawl, “Letting the horses have their heads. They’ll get us home.”
With a terrifying bump they were off the road, slanting with two wheels in the ditch, but instantly they were jerked back as the horses fled on. She gasped. She tried to, and did not, feel brave as she pulled the woolen robe up about her chin.
They were passing something like a dark wall on the right. “I know that barn!” he yelped. He pulled at the reins. Peeping from the covers she saw his teeth pinch his lower lip, saw him scowl as he slackened and sawed and jerked sharply again at the racing horses.
“Farmhouse there. Put robe around you and come on,” he cried.
It was like diving into icy water to climb out of the carriage, but on the ground she smiled at him, her face little and childish and pink above the buffalo robe over her shoulders. In a swirl of flakes which scratched at their eyes like a maniac darkness, he unbuckled the harness. He turned and plodded back, a ponderous furry figure, holding the horses’ bridles, Carol’s hand dragging at his sleeve.
They came to the cloudy bulk of a barn whose outer wall was directly upon the road. Feeling along it, he found a gate, led them into a yard, into the barn. The interior was warm. It stunned them with its languid quiet.
He carefully drove the horses into stalls.
Her toes were coals of pain. “Let’s run for the house,” she said.
“Can’t. Not yet. Might never find it. Might get lost ten feet away from it. Sit over in this stall, near the horses. We’ll rush for the house when the blizzard lifts.”
“I’m so stiff! I can’t walk!”
He carried her into the stall, stripped off her overshoes and boots, stopping to blow on his purple fingers as he fumbled at her laces. He rubbed her feet, and covered her with the buffalo robe and horse-blankets from the pile on the feed-box. She was drowsy, hemmed in by the storm. She sighed:
“You’re so strong and yet so skilful and not afraid of blood or storm or ——”
“Used to it. Only thing that’s bothered me was the chance the ether fumes might explode, last night.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Why, Dave, the darn fool, sent me ether, instead of chloroform like I told him, and you know ether fumes are mighty inflammable, especially with that lamp right by the table. But I had to operate, of course — wound chuck-full of barnyard filth that way.”
“You knew all the time that —— Both you and I might have been blown up? You knew it while you were operating?”
“Sure. Didn’t you? Why, what’s the matter?”
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:57