BY SINCLAIR LEWIS
AUTHOR OF THE JOB, ETC.
GROSSET & DUNLAP PUBLISHERS NEW YORK
COPYRIGHT, 1919, BY HARCOURT, BRACE AND HOWE, INC.
CHAPTER PAGE I MISS BOLTWOOD OF BROOKLYN IS LOST IN THE MUD 3 II CLAIRE ESCAPES FROM RESPECTABILITY 10 III A YOUNG MAN IN A RAINCOAT 21 IV A ROOM WITHOUT 36 V RELEASE BRAKES—SHIFT TO THIRD 49 VI THE LAND OF BILLOWING CLOUDS 66 VII THE GREAT AMERICAN FRYING PAN 74 VIII THE DISCOVERY OF CANNED SHRIMPS AND HESPERIDES 85 IX THE MAN WITH AGATE EYES 101 X THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE HILLSIDE ROAD 112 XI SAGEBRUSH TOURISTS OF THE GREAT HIGHWAY 119 XII THE WONDERS OF NATURE WITH ALL MODERN IMPROVEMENTS 129 XIII ADVENTURERS BY FIRELIGHT 138 XIV THE BEAST OF THE CORRAL 149 XV THE BLACK DAY OF THE VOYAGE 154 XVI THE SPECTACLES OF AUTHORITY 165 XVII THE VAGABOND IN GREEN 176 XVIII THE FALLACY OF ROMANCE 188 XIX THE NIGHT OF ENDLESS PINES 194 XX THE FREE WOMAN 205 XXI THE MINE OF LOST SOULS 219 XXII ACROSS THE ROOF OF THE WORLD 228 XXIII THE GRAEL IN A BACK YARD IN YAKIMA 237 XXIV HER OWN PEOPLE 242 XXV THE ABYSSINIAN PRINCE 254 XXVI A CLASS IN ENGINEERING AND OMELETS 270 XXVII THE VICIOUSNESS OF NICE THINGS 279 XXVIII THE MORNING COAT OF MR. HUDSON B. RIGGS 290 XXIX THE ENEMY LOVE 300 XXX THE VIRTUOUS PLOTTERS 307 XXXI THE KITCHEN INTIMATE 310 XXXII THE CORNFIELD ARISTOCRAT 331 XXXIII TOOTH-MUG TEA 345 XXXIV THE BEGINNING OF A STORY 361
MISS BOLTWOOD OF BROOKLYN IS LOST IN THE MUD
When the windshield was closed it became so filmed with rain that Claire fancied she was piloting a drowned car in dim spaces under the sea. When it was open, drops jabbed into her eyes and chilled her cheeks. She was excited and thoroughly miserable. She realized that these Minnesota country roads had no respect for her polite experience on Long Island parkways. She felt like a woman, not like a driver.
But the Gomez-Dep roadster had seventy horsepower, and sang songs. Since she had left Minneapolis nothing had passed her. Back yonder a truck had tried to crowd her, and she had dropped into a ditch, climbed a bank, returned to the road, and after that the truck was not. Now she was regarding a view more splendid than mountains above a garden by the sea—a stretch of good road. To her passenger, her father, Claire chanted:
"Heavenly! There's some gravel. We can make time. We'll hustle on to the next town and get dry."
"Yes. But don't mind me. You're doing very well," her father sighed.
Instantly, the dismay of it rushing at her, she saw the end of the patch of gravel. The road ahead was a wet black smear, criss-crossed with ruts. The car shot into a morass of prairie gumbo—which is mud mixed with tar, fly-paper, fish glue, and well-chewed, chocolate-covered caramels. When cattle get into gumbo, the farmers send for the stump-dynamite and try blasting.
It was her first really bad stretch of road. She was frightened. Then she was too appallingly busy to be frightened, or to be Miss Claire Boltwood, or to comfort her uneasy father. She had to drive. Her frail graceful arms put into it a vicious vigor that was genius.
When the wheels struck the slime, they slid, they wallowed. The car skidded. It was terrifyingly out of control. It began majestically to turn toward the ditch. She fought the steering wheel as though she were shadow-boxing, but the car kept contemptuously staggering till it was sideways, straight across the road. Somehow, it was back again, eating into a rut, going ahead. She didn't know how she had done it, but she had got it back. She longed to take time to retrace her own cleverness in steering. She didn't. She kept going.
The car backfired, slowed. She yanked the gear from third into first. She sped up. The motor ran like a terrified pounding heart, while the car crept on by inches through filthy mud that stretched ahead of her without relief.
She was battling to hold the car in the principal rut. She snatched the windshield open, and concentrated on that left rut. She felt that she was keeping the wheel from climbing those high sides of the rut, those six-inch walls of mud, sparkling with tiny grits. Her mind snarled at her arms, "Let the ruts do the steering. You're just fighting against them." It worked. Once she let the wheels alone they comfortably followed the furrows, and for three seconds she had that delightful belief of every motorist after every mishap, "Now that this particular disagreeableness is over, I'll never, never have any trouble again!"
But suppose the engine overheated, ran out of water? Anxiety twanged at her nerves. And the deep distinctive ruts were changing to a complex pattern, like the rails in a city switchyard. She picked out the track of the one motor car that had been through here recently. It was marked with the swastika tread of the rear tires. That track was her friend; she knew and loved the driver of a car she had never seen in her life.
She was very tired. She wondered if she might not stop for a moment. Then she came to an upslope. The car faltered; felt indecisive beneath her. She jabbed down the accelerator. Her hands pushed at the steering wheel as though she were pushing the car. The engine picked up, sulkily kept going. To the eye, there was merely a rise in the rolling ground, but to her anxiety it was a mountain up which she—not the engine, but herself—pulled this bulky mass, till she had reached the top, and was safe again—for a second. Still there was no visible end of the mud.
In alarm she thought, "How long does it last? I can't keep this up. I—Oh!"
The guiding tread of the previous car was suddenly lost in a mass of heaving, bubble-scattered mud, like a batter of black dough. She fairly picked up the car, and flung it into that welter, through it, and back into the reappearing swastika-marked trail.
Her father spoke: "You're biting your lips. They'll bleed, if you don't look out. Better stop and rest."
"Can't! No bottom to this mud. Once stop and lose momentum—stuck for keeps!"
She had ten more minutes of it before she reached a combination of bridge and culvert, with a plank platform above a big tile drain. With this solid plank bottom, she could stop. Silence came roaring down as she turned the switch. The bubbling water in the radiator steamed about the cap. Claire was conscious of tautness of the cords of her neck in front; of a pain at the base of her brain. Her father glanced at her curiously. "I must be a wreck. I'm sure my hair is frightful," she thought, but forgot it as she looked at him. His face was unusually pale. In the tumult of activity he had been betrayed into letting the old despondent look blur his eyes and sag his mouth. "Must get on," she determined.
Claire was dainty of habit. She detested untwisted hair, ripped gloves, muddy shoes. Hesitant as a cat by a puddle, she stepped down on the bridge. Even on these planks, the mud was three inches thick. It squidged about her low, spatted shoes. "Eeh!" she squeaked.
She tiptoed to the tool-box and took out a folding canvas bucket. She edged down to the trickling stream below. She was miserably conscious of a pastoral scene all gone to mildew—cows beneath willows by the creek, milkweeds dripping, dried mullein weed stalks no longer dry. The bank of the stream was so slippery that she shot down two feet, and nearly went sprawling. Her knee did touch the bank, and the skirt of her gray sports-suit showed a smear of yellow earth.
In less than two miles the racing motor had used up so much water that she had to make four trips to the creek before she had filled the radiator. When she had climbed back on the running-board she glared down at spats and shoes turned into gray lumps. She was not tearful. She was angry.
"Idiot! Ought to have put on my rubbers. Well—too late now," she observed, as she started the engine.
She again followed the swastika tread. To avoid a hole in the road ahead, the unknown driver had swung over to the side of the road, and taken to the intensely black earth of the edge of an unfenced cornfield. Flashing at Claire came the sight of a deep, water-filled hole, scattered straw and brush, debris of a battlefield, which made her gaspingly realize that her swastikaed leader had been stuck and—
And instantly her own car was stuck.
She had had to put the car at that hole. It dropped, far down, and it stayed down. The engine stalled. She started it, but the back wheels spun merrily round and round, without traction. She did not make one inch. When she again killed the blatting motor, she let it stay dead. She peered at her father.
He was not a father, just now, but a passenger trying not to irritate the driver. He smiled in a waxy way, and said, "Hard luck! Well, you did the best you could. The other hole, there in the road, would have been just as bad. You're a fine driver, dolly."
Her smile was warm and real. "No. I'm a fool. You told me to put on chains. I didn't. I deserve it."
"Well, anyway, most men would be cussing. You acquire merit by not beating me. I believe that's done, in moments like this. If you'd like, I'll get out and crawl around in the mud, and play turtle for you."
"No. I'm quite all right. I did feel frightfully strong-minded as long as there was any use of it. It kept me going. But now I might just as well be cheerful, because we're stuck, and we're probably going to stay stuck for the rest of this care-free summer day."
The weariness of the long strain caught her, all at once. She slipped forward, sat huddled, her knees crossed under the edge of the steering wheel, her hands falling beside her, one of them making a faint brushing sound as it slid down the upholstery. Her eyes closed; as her head drooped farther, she fancied she could hear the vertebrae click in her tense neck.
Her father was silent, a misty figure in a lap-robe. The rain streaked the mica lights in the side-curtains. A distant train whistled desolately across the sodden fields. The inside of the car smelled musty. The quiet was like a blanket over the ears. Claire was in a hazy drowse. She felt that she could never drive again.
CLAIRE ESCAPES FROM RESPECTABILITY
Claire Boltwood lived on the Heights, Brooklyn. Persons from New York and other parts of the Middlewest have been known to believe that Brooklyn is somehow humorous. In newspaper jokes and vaudeville it is so presented that people who are willing to take their philosophy from those sources believe that the leading citizens of Brooklyn are all deacons, undertakers, and obstetricians. The fact is that North Washington Square, at its reddest and whitest and fanlightedest, Gramercy Park at its most ivied, are not so aristocratic as the section of Brooklyn called the Heights. Here preached Henry Ward Beecher. Here, in mansions like mausoleums, on the ridge above docks where the good ships came sailing in from Sourabaya and Singapore, ruled the lords of a thousand sails. And still is it a place of wealth too solid to emulate the nimble self-advertising of Fifth Avenue. Here dwell the fifth-generation possessors of blocks of foundries and shipyards. Here, in a big brick house of much dignity, much ugliness, and much conservatory, lived Claire Boltwood, with her widower father.
Henry B. Boltwood was vice-president of a firm dealing in railway supplies. He was neither wealthy nor at all poor. Every summer, despite Claire's delicate hints, they took the same cottage on the Jersey Coast, and Mr. Boltwood came down for Sunday. Claire had gone to a good school out of Philadelphia, on the Main Line. She was used to gracious leisure, attractive uselessness, nut-center chocolates, and a certain wonder as to why she was alive.
She wanted to travel, but her father could not get away. He consistently spent his days in overworking, and his evenings in wishing he hadn't overworked. He was attractive, fresh, pink-cheeked, white-mustached, and nerve-twitching with years of detail.
Claire's ambition had once been babies and a solid husband, but as various young males of the species appeared before her, sang their mating songs and preened their newly dry-cleaned plumage, she found that the trouble with solid young men was that they were solid. Though she liked to dance, the "dancing men" bored her. And she did not understand the district's quota of intellectuals very well; she was good at listening to symphony concerts, but she never had much luck in discussing the cleverness of the wood winds in taking up the main motif. It is history that she refused a master of arts with an old violin, a good taste in ties, and an income of eight thousand.
The only man who disturbed her was Geoffrey Saxton, known throughout the interwoven sets of Brooklyn Heights as "Jeff." Jeff Saxton was thirty-nine to Claire's twenty-three. He was clean and busy; he had no signs of vice or humor. Especially for Jeff must have been invented the symbolic morning coat, the unwrinkable gray trousers, and the moral rimless spectacles. He was a graduate of a nice college, and he had a nice tenor and a nice family and nice hands and he was nicely successful in New York copper dealing. When he was asked questions by people who were impertinent, clever, or poor, Jeff looked them over coldly before he answered, and often they felt so uncomfortable that he didn't have to answer.
The boys of Claire's own age, not long out of Yale and Princeton, doing well in business and jumping for their evening clothes daily at six-thirty, light o' loves and admirers of athletic heroes, these lads Claire found pleasant, but hard to tell apart. She didn't have to tell Jeff Saxton apart. He did his own telling. Jeff called—not too often. He sang—not too sentimentally. He took her father and herself to the theater—not too lavishly. He told Claire—in a voice not too serious—that she was his helmed Athena, his rose of all the world. He informed her of his substantial position—not too obviously. And he was so everlastingly, firmly, quietly, politely, immovably always there.
She watched the hulk of marriage drifting down on her frail speed-boat of aspiration, and steered in desperate circles.
Then her father got the nervous prostration he had richly earned. The doctor ordered rest. Claire took him in charge. He didn't want to travel. Certainly he didn't want the shore or the Adirondacks. As there was a branch of his company in Minneapolis, she lured him that far away.
Being rootedly of Brooklyn Heights, Claire didn't know much about the West. She thought that Milwaukee was the capital of Minnesota. She was not so uninformed as some of her friends, however. She had heard that in Dakota wheat was to be viewed in vast tracts—maybe a hundred acres.
Mr. Boltwood could not be coaxed to play with the people to whom his Minneapolis representative introduced him. He was overworking again, and perfectly happy. He was hoping to find something wrong with the branch house. Claire tried to tempt him out to the lakes. She failed. His nerve-fuse burnt out the second time, with much fireworks.
Claire had often managed her circle of girls, but it had never occurred to her to manage her executive father save by indirect and pretty teasing. Now, in conspiracy with the doctor, she bullied her father. He saw gray death waiting as alternative, and he was meek. He agreed to everything. He consented to drive with her across two thousand miles of plains and mountains to Seattle, to drop in for a call on their cousins, the Eugene Gilsons.
Back East they had a chauffeur and two cars—the limousine, and the Gomez-Deperdussin roadster, Claire's beloved. It would, she believed, be more of a change from everything that might whisper to Mr. Boltwood of the control of men, not to take a chauffeur. Her father never drove, but she could, she insisted. His easy agreeing was pathetic. He watched her with spaniel eyes. They had the Gomez roadster shipped to them from New York.
On a July morning, they started out of Minneapolis in a mist, and as it has been hinted, they stopped sixty miles northward, in a rain, also in much gumbo. Apparently their nearest approach to the Pacific Ocean would be this oceanically moist edge of a cornfield, between Schoenstrom and Gopher Prairie, Minnesota.
* * * * *
Claire roused from her damp doze and sighed, "Well, I must get busy and get the car out of this."
"Don't you think you'd better get somebody to help us?"
"But get who?"
"No! It's just 'who,' when you're in the mud. No. One of the good things about an adventure like this is that I must do things for myself. I've always had people to do things for me. Maids and nice teachers and you, old darling! I suppose it's made me soft. Soft—I would like a soft davenport and a novel and a pound of almond-brittle, and get all sick, and not feel so beastly virile as I do just now. But——"
She turned up the collar of her gray tweed coat, painfully climbed out—the muscles of her back racking—and examined the state of the rear wheels. They were buried to the axle; in front of them the mud bulked in solid, shiny blackness. She took out her jack and chains. It was too late. There was no room to get the jack under the axle. She remembered from the narratives of motoring friends that brush in mud gave a firmer surface for the wheels to climb upon.
She also remembered how jolly and agreeably heroic the accounts of their mishaps had sounded—a week after they were over.
She waded down the road toward an old wood-lot. At first she tried to keep dry, but she gave it up, and there was pleasure in being defiantly dirty. She tramped straight through puddles; she wallowed in mud. In the wood-lot was long grass which soaked her stockings till her ankles felt itchy. Claire had never expected to be so very intimate with a brush-pile. She became so. As though she were a pioneer woman who had been toiling here for years, she came to know the brush stick by stick—the long valuable branch that she could never quite get out from under the others; the thorny bough that pricked her hands every time she tried to reach the curious bundle of switches.
Seven trips she made, carrying armfuls of twigs and solemnly dragging large boughs behind her. She patted them down in front of all four wheels. Her crisp hands looked like the paws of a three-year-old boy making a mud fort. Her nails hurt from the mud wedged beneath them. Her mud-caked shoes were heavy to lift. It was with exquisite self-approval that she sat on the running-board, scraped a car-load of lignite off her soles, climbed back into the car, punched the starter.
The car stirred, crept forward one inch, and settled back—one inch. The second time it heaved encouragingly but did not make quite so much headway. Then Claire did sob.
She rubbed her cheek against the comfortable, rough, heather-smelling shoulder of her father's coat, while he patted her and smiled, "Good girl! I better get out and help."
She sat straight, shook her head. "Nope. I'll do it. And I'm not going to insist on being heroic any longer. I'll get a farmer to pull us out."
As she let herself down into the ooze, she reflected that all farmers have hearts of gold, anatomical phenomena never found among the snobs and hirelings of New York. The nearest heart of gold was presumably beating warmly in the house a quarter of a mile ahead.
She came up a muddy lane to a muddy farmyard, with a muddy cur yapping at her wet legs, and geese hissing in a pool of purest mud serene. The house was small and rather old. It may have been painted once. The barn was large and new. It had been painted very much, and in a blinding red with white trimmings. There was no brass plate on the house, but on the barn, in huge white letters, was the legend, "Adolph Zolzac, 1913."
She climbed by log steps to a narrow frame back porch littered with parts of a broken cream-separator. She told herself that she was simple and friendly in going to the back door instead of the front, and it was with gaiety that she knocked on the ill-jointed screen door, which flapped dismally in response.
"Ja?" from within.
She rapped again.
She opened the door on a kitchen, the highlight of which was a table heaped with dishes of dumplings and salt pork. A shirt-sleeved man, all covered with mustache and calm, sat by the table, and he kept right on sitting as he inquired:
"My car—my automobile—has been stuck in the mud. A bad driver, I'm afraid! I wonder if you would be so good as to——"
"I usually get t'ree dollars, but I dunno as I vant to do it for less than four. Today I ain'd feelin' very goot," grumbled the golden-hearted.
Claire was aware that a woman whom she had not noticed—so much smaller than the dumplings, so much less vigorous than the salt pork was she—was speaking: "Aber, papa, dot's a shame you sharge de poor young lady dot, when she drive by sei self. Vot she t'ink of de Sherman people?"
The farmer merely grunted. To Claire, "Yuh, four dollars. Dot's what I usually charge sometimes."
"Usually? Do you mean to say that you leave that hole there in the road right along—that people keep on trying to avoid it and get stuck as I was? Oh! If I were an official——"
"Vell, I dunno, I don't guess I run my place to suit you smart alecks——"
"Papa! How you talk on the young lady! Make shame!"
"—from the city. If you don't like it, you stay bei Mineapolis! I haul you out for t'ree dollars and a half. Everybody pay dot. Last mont' I make forty-five dollars. They vos all glad to pay. They say I help them fine. I don't see vot you're kickin' about! Oh, these vimmins!"
"It's blackmail! I wouldn't pay it, if it weren't for my father sitting waiting out there. But—go ahead. Hurry!"
She sat tapping her toe while Zolzac completed the stertorous task of hogging the dumplings, then stretched, yawned, scratched, and covered his merely dirty garments with overalls that were apparently woven of processed mud. When he had gone to the barn for his team, his wife came to Claire. On her drained face were the easy tears of the slave women.
"Oh, miss, I don't know vot I should do. My boys go on the public school, and they speak American just so goot as you. Oh, I vant man lets me luff America. But papa he says it is an Unsinn; you got the money, he says, nobody should care if you are American or Old Country people. I should vish I could ride once in an automobile! But—I am so 'shamed, so 'shamed that I must sit and see my Mann make this. Forty years I been married to him, and pretty soon I die——"
Claire patted her hand. There was nothing to say to tragedy that had outlived hope.
Adolph Zolzac clumped out to the highroad behind his vast, rolling-flanked horses—so much cleaner and better fed than his wisp of a wife. Claire followed him, and in her heart she committed murder and was glad of it. While Mr. Boltwood looked out with mild wonder at Claire's new friend, Zolzac hitched his team to the axle. It did not seem possible that two horses could pull out the car where seventy horsepower had fainted. But, easily, yawning and thinking about dinner, the horses drew the wheels up on the mud-bank, out of the hole and——
The harness broke, with a flying mess of straps and rope, and the car plumped with perfect exactness back into its bed.
A YOUNG MAN IN A RAINCOAT
"Huh! Such an auto! Look, it break my harness a'ready! Two dollar that cost you to mend it. De auto iss too heavy!" stormed Zolzac.
"All right! All right! Only for heaven's sake—go get another harness!" Claire shrieked.
"Fife-fifty dot will be, in all." Zolzac grinned.
Claire was standing in front of him. She was thinking of other drivers, poor people, in old cars, who had been at the mercy of this golden-hearted one. She stared past him, in the direction from which she had come. Another motor was in sight.
It was a tin beetle of a car; that agile, cheerful, rut-jumping model known as a "bug"; with a home-tacked, home-painted tin cowl and tail covering the stripped chassis of a little cheap Teal car. The lone driver wore an old black raincoat with an atrocious corduroy collar, and a new plaid cap in the Harry Lauder tartan. The bug skipped through mud where the Boltwoods' Gomez had slogged and rolled. Its pilot drove up behind her car, and leaped out. He trotted forward to Claire and Zolzac. His eyes were twenty-seven or eight, but his pink cheeks were twenty, and when he smiled—shyly, radiantly—he was no age at all, but eternal boy. Claire had a blurred impression that she had seen him before, some place along the road.
"Stuck?" he inquired, not very intelligently. "How much is Adolph charging you?"
"He wants three-fifty, and his harness broke, and he wants two dollars——"
"Oh! So he's still working that old gag! I've heard all about Adolph. He keeps that harness for pulling out cars, and it always busts. The last time, though, he only charged six bits to get it mended. Now let me reason with him."
The young man turned with vicious quickness, and for the first time Claire heard pidgin German—German as it is spoken between Americans who have never learned it, and Germans who have forgotten it:
"Schon sex hundred times Ich hoere all about the way you been doing autos, Zolzac, you verfluchter Schweinhund, and I'll set the sheriff on you——"
"Dot ain'd true, maybe einmal die Woche kommt somebody and Ich muss die Arbeit immer lassen und in die Regen ausgehen, und seh' mal how die boots sint mit mud covered, two dollars it don't pay for die boots——"
"Now that's enough-plenty out of you, seien die boots verdammt, and mach' dass du fort gehst—muddy boots, hell!—put mal ein egg in die boots and beat it, verleicht maybe I'll by golly arrest you myself, weiss du! I'm a special deputy sheriff."
The young man stood stockily. He seemed to swell as his somewhat muddy hand was shaken directly at, under, and about the circumference of, Adolph Zolzac's hairy nose. The farmer was stronger, but he retreated. He took up the reins. He whined, "Don't I get nothing I break de harness?"
"Sure. You get ten—years! And you get out!"
From thirty yards up the road, Zolzac flung back, "You t'ink you're pretty damn smart!" That was his last serious reprisal.
Clumsily, as one not used to it, the young man lifted his cap to Claire, showing straight, wiry, rope-colored hair, brushed straight back from a rather fine forehead. "Gee, I was sorry to have to swear and holler like that, but it's all Adolph understands. Please don't think there's many of the folks around here like him. They say he's the meanest man in the county."
"I'm immensely grateful to you, but—do you know much about motors? How can I get out of this mud?"
She was surprised to see the youngster blush. His clear skin flooded. His engaging smile came again, and he hesitated, "Let me pull you out."
She looked from her hulking car to his mechanical flea.
He answered the look: "I can do it all right. I'm used to the gumbo—regular mud-hen. Just add my power to yours. Have you a tow-rope?"
"No. I never thought of bringing one."
"I'll get mine."
She walked with him back toward his bug. It lacked not only top and side-curtains, but even windshield and running-board. It was a toy—a card-board box on toothpick axles. Strapped to the bulging back was a wicker suitcase partly covered by tarpaulin. From the seat peered a little furry face.
"A cat?" she exclaimed, as he came up with a wire rope, extracted from the tin back.
"Yes. She's the captain of the boat. I'm just the engineer."
"What is her name?"
Before he answered the young man strode ahead to the front of her car, Claire obediently trotting after him. He stooped to look at her front axle. He raised his head, glanced at her, and he was blushing again.
"Her name is Vere de Vere!" he confessed. Then he fled back to his bug. He drove it in front of the Gomez-Dep. The hole in the road itself was as deep as the one on the edge of the cornfield, where she was stuck, but he charged it. She was fascinated by his skill. Where she would for a tenth of a second have hesitated while choosing the best course, he hurled the bug straight at the hole, plunged through with sheets of glassy black water arching on either side, then viciously twisted the car to the right, to the left, and straight again, as he followed the tracks with the solidest bottoms.
Strapped above the tiny angle-iron step which replaced his running-board was an old spade. He dug channels in front of the four wheels of her car, so that they might go up inclines, instead of pushing against the straight walls of mud they had thrown up. On these inclines he strewed the brush she had brought, halting to ask, with head alertly lifted from his stooped huddle in the mud, "Did you have to get this brush yourself?"
"Yes. Horrid wet!"
He merely shook his head in commiseration.
He fastened the tow-rope to the rear axle of his car, to the front of hers. "Now will you be ready to put on all your power as I begin to pull?" he said casually, rather respectfully.
When the struggling bug had pulled the wire rope taut, she opened the throttle. The rope trembled. Her car seemed to draw sullenly back. Then it came out—out—really out, which is the most joyous sensation any motorist shall ever know. In excitement over actually moving again, as fast as any healthy young snail, she drove on, on, the young man ahead grinning back at her. Nor did she stop, nor he, till both cars were safe on merely thick mud, a quarter of a mile away.
She switched off the power—and suddenly she was in a whirlwind of dizzy sickening tiredness. Even in her abandonment to exhaustion she noticed that the young man did not stare at her but, keeping his back to her, removed the tow-rope, and stowed it away in his bug. She wondered whether it was tact or yokelish indifference.
Her father spoke for the first time since the Galahad of the tin bug had come: "How much do you think we ought to give this fellow?"
Now of all the cosmic problems yet unsolved, not cancer nor the future of poverty are the flustering questions, but these twain: Which is worse, not to wear evening clothes at a party at which you find every one else dressed, or to come in evening clothes to a house where, it proves, they are never worn? And: Which is worse, not to tip when a tip has been expected; or to tip, when the tip is an insult?
In discomfort of spirit and wetness of ankles Claire shuddered, "Oh dear, I don't believe he expects us to pay him. He seems like an awfully independent person. Maybe we'd offend him if we offered——"
"The only reasonable thing to be offended at in this vale of tears is not being offered money!"
"Just the same—— Oh dear, I'm so tired. But good little Claire will climb out and be diplomatic."
She pinched her forehead, to hold in her cracking brain, and wabbled out into new scenes of mud and wetness, but she came up to the young man with the most rain-washed and careless of smiles. "Won't you come back and meet my father? He's terribly grateful to you—as I am. And may we—— You've worked so hard, and about saved our lives. May I pay you for that labor? We're really much indebted——"
"Oh, it wasn't anything. Tickled to death if I could help you."
He heartily shook hands with her father, and he droned, "Pleased to meet you, Mr. Uh."
"Mr. Boltwood. My name is Milt—Milton Daggett. See you have a New York license on your car. We don't see but mighty few of those through here. Glad I could help you."
"Ah yes, Mr. Daggett." Mr. Boltwood was uninterestedly fumbling in his money pocket. Behind Milt Daggett, Claire shook her head wildly, rattling her hands as though she were playing castanets. Mr. Boltwood shrugged. He did not understand. His relations with young men in cheap raincoats were entirely monetary. They did something for you, and you paid them—preferably not too much—and they ceased to be. Whereas Milt Daggett respectfully but stolidly continued to be, and Mr. Henry Boltwood's own daughter was halting the march of affairs by asking irrelevant questions:
"Didn't we see you back in—what was that village we came through back about twelve miles?"
"Schoenstrom?" suggested Milt.
"Yes, I think that was it. Didn't we pass you or something? We stopped at a garage there, to change a tire."
"I don't think so. I was in town, though, this morning. Say, uh, did you and your father grab any eats——"
"I mean, did you get dinner there?"
"No. I wish we had!"
"Well say, I didn't either, and—I'd be awfully glad if you folks would have something to eat with me now."
Claire tried to give him a smile, but the best she could do was to lend him one. She could not associate interesting food with Milt and his mud-slobbered, tin-covered, dun-painted Teal bug. He seemed satisfied with her dubious grimace. By his suggestion they drove ahead to a spot where the cars could be parked on firm grass beneath oaks. On the way, Mr. Boltwood lifted his voice in dismay. His touch of nervous prostration had not made him queer or violent; he retained a touching faith in good food.
"We might find some good little hotel and have some chops and just some mushrooms and peas," insisted the man from Brooklyn Heights.
"Oh, I don't suppose the country hotels are really so awfully good," she speculated. "And look—that nice funny boy. We couldn't hurt his feelings. He's having so much fun out of being a Good Samaritan."
From the mysterious rounded back of his car Milt Daggett drew a tiny stove, to be heated by a can of solidified alcohol, a frying pan that was rather large for dolls but rather small for square-fingered hands, a jar of bacon, eggs in a bag, a coffee pot, a can of condensed milk, and a litter of unsorted tin plates and china cups. While, by his request, Claire scoured the plates and cups, he made bacon and eggs and coffee, the little stove in the bottom of his car sheltered by the cook's bending over it. The smell of food made Claire forgiving toward the fact that she was wet through; that the rain continued to drizzle down her neck.
He lifted his hand and demanded, "Take your shoes off!"
He gulped. He stammered, "I mean—I mean your shoes are soaked through. If you'll sit in the car, I'll put your shoes up by the engine. It's pretty well heated from racing it in the mud. You can get your stockings dry under the cowl."
She was amused by the elaborateness with which he didn't glance at her while she took off her low shoes and slipped her quite too thin black stockings under the protecting tin cowl. She reflected, "He has such a nice, awkward gentleness. But such bad taste! They're really quite good ankles. Apparently ankles are not done, in Teal bug circles. His sisters don't even have limbs. But do fairies have sisters? He is a fairy. When I'm out of the mud he'll turn his raincoat into a pair of lordly white wings, and vanish. But what will become of the cat?"
Thus her tired brain, like a squirrel in a revolving cage, while she sat primly and scraped at a clot of rust on a tin plate and watched him put on the bacon and eggs. Wondering if cats were used for this purpose in the Daggett family, she put soaked, unhappy Vere de Vere on her feet, to her own great comfort and the cat's delight. It was an open car, and the rain still rained, and a strange young man was a foot from her tending the not very crackly fire, but rarely had Claire felt so domestic.
Milt was apparently struggling to say something. After several bobs of his head he ventured, "You're so wet! I'd like for you to take my raincoat."
"No! Really! I'm already soaked through. You keep dry."
He was unhappy about it. He plucked at a button of the coat. She turned him from the subject. "I hope Lady Vere de Vere is getting warm, too."
"Seems to be. She's kind of demanding. She wanted a little car of her own, but I didn't think she could keep up with me, not on a long hike."
"A little car? With her paws on the tiny wheel? Oh—sweet! Are you going far, Mr. Daggett?"
"Yes, quite a ways. To Seattle, Washington."
"Oh, really? Extraordinary. We're going there, too."
"Honest? You driving all the way? Oh, no, of course your father——"
"No, he doesn't drive. By the way, I hope he isn't too miserable back there."
"I'll be darned. Both of us going to Seattle. That's what they call a coincidence, isn't it! Hope I'll see you on the road, some time. But I don't suppose I will. Once you're out of the mud, your Gomez will simply lose my Teal."
"Not necessarily. You're the better driver. And I shall take it easy. Are you going to stay long in Seattle?" It was not merely a polite dinner-payment question. She wondered; she could not place this fresh-cheeked, unworldly young man so far from his home.
"Why, I kind of hope—— Government railroad, Alaska. I'm going to try to get in on that, somehow. I've never been out of Minnesota in my life, but there's couple mountains and oceans and things I thought I'd like to see, so I just put my suitcase and Vere de Vere in the machine, and started out. I burn distillate instead of gas, so it doesn't cost much. If I ever happen to have five whole dollars, why, I might go on to Japan!"
"That would be jolly."
"Though I s'pose I'd have to eat—what is it?—pickled fish? There's a woman from near my town went to the Orient as a missionary. From what she says, I guess all you need in Japan to make a house is a bottle of mucilage and a couple of old newspapers and some two-by-fours. And you can have the house on a purple mountain, with cherry trees down below, and——" He put his clenched hand to his lips. His head was bowed. "And the ocean! Lord! The ocean! And we'll see it at Seattle. Bay, anyway. And steamers there—just come from India! Huh! Getting pretty darn poetic here! Eggs are done."
The young man did not again wander into visions. He was all briskness as he served her bacon and eggs, took a plate of them to Mr. Boltwood in the Gomez, gouged into his own. Having herself scoured the tin plates, Claire was not repulsed by their naked tinniness; and the coffee in the broken-handled china cup was tolerable. Milt drank from the top of a vacuum bottle. He was silent. Immediately after the lunch he stowed the things away. Claire expected a drawn-out, tact-demanding farewell, but he climbed into his bug, said "Good-by, Miss Boltwood. Good luck!" and was gone.
The rainy road was bleakly empty without him.
It did not seem possible that Claire's body could be nagged into going on any longer. Her muscles were relaxed, her nerves frayed. But the moment the Gomez started, she discovered that magic change which every long-distance motorist knows. Instantly she was alert, seemingly able to drive forever. The pilot's instinct ruled her; gave her tireless eyes and sturdy hands. Surely she had never been weary; never would be, so long as it was hers to keep the car going.
She had driven perhaps six miles when she reached a hamlet called St. Klopstock. On the bedraggled mud-and-shanty main street a man was loading crushed rock into a truck. By him was a large person in a prosperous raincoat, who stepped out, held up his hand. Claire stopped.
"You the young lady that got stuck in that hole by Adolph Zolzac's?"
"Yes. And Mr. Zolzac wasn't very nice about it."
"He's going to be just elegant about it, now, and there ain't going to be any more hole. I think Adolph has been keeping it muddy—throwing in soft dirt—and he made a good and plenty lot out of pulling out tourists. Bill and I are going down right now and fill it up with stone. Milt Daggett come through here—he's got a nerve, that fellow, but I did have to laugh—he says to me, 'Barney——' This was just now. He hasn't more than just drove out of town. He said to me, 'Barney,' he says, 'you're the richest man in this township, and the banker, and you got a big car y'self, and you think you're one whale of a political boss,' he says, 'and yet you let that Zolzac maintain a private ocean, against the peace and damn horrible inconvenience of the Commonwealth of Minnesota——' He's got a great line of talk, that fellow. He told me how you got stuck—made me so ashamed—I been to New York myself—and right away I got Bill, and we're going down and hold a donation and surprise party on Adolph and fill that hole."
"But won't Adolph dig it out again?"
The banker was puffy, but his eyes were of stone. From the truck he took a shotgun. He drawled, "In that case, the surprise party will include an elegant wake."
"But how did—— Who is this extraordinary Milt Daggett?"
"Him? Oh, nobody 'specially. He's just a fellow down here at Schoenstrom. But we all know him. Goes to all the dances, thirty miles around. Thing about him is: if he sees something wrong, he picks out some poor fellow like me, and says what he thinks."
Claire drove on. She was aware that she was looking for Milt's bug. It was not in sight.
"Father," she exclaimed, "do you realize that this lad didn't tell us he was going to have the hole filled? Just did it. He frightens me. I'm afraid that when we reach Gopher Prairie for the night, we'll find he has engaged for us the suite that Prince Collars and Cuffs once slept in."
"Hhhhmm," yawned her father.
"Curious young man. He said, 'Pleased to meet you.'"
"Huuuuhhm! Fresh air makes me so sleepy."
"And—— Fooled you! Got through that mudhole, anyway! And he said—— Look! Fields stretch out so here, and not a tree except the willow-groves round those farmhouses. And he said 'Gee' so many times, and 'dinner' for the noon meal. And his nails—— No, I suppose he really is just a farm youngster."
Mr. Boltwood did not answer. His machine-finish smile indicated an enormous lack of interest in young men in Teal bugs.
A ROOM WITHOUT
Gopher Prairie has all of five thousand people. Its commercial club asserts that it has at least a thousand more population and an infinitely better band than the ridiculously envious neighboring town of Joralemon. But there were few signs that a suite had been engaged for the Boltwoods, or that Prince Collars and Cuffs had on his royal tour of America spent much time in Gopher Prairie. Claire reached it somewhat before seven. She gaped at it in a hazy way. Though this was her first prairie town for a considerable stay, she could not pump up interest.
The state of mind of the touring motorist entering a strange place at night is as peculiar and definite as that of a prospector. It is compounded of gratitude at having got safely in; of perception of a new town, yet with all eagerness about new things dulled by weariness; of hope that there is going to be a good hotel, but small expectation—and absolutely no probability—that there really will be one.
Claire had only a blotched impression of peaked wooden buildings and squatty brick stores with faded awnings; of a red grain elevator and a crouching station and a lumberyard; then of the hopelessly muddy road leading on again into the country. She felt that if she didn't stop at once, she would miss the town entirely. The driving-instinct sustained her, made her take corners sharply, spot a garage, send the Gomez whirling in on the cement floor.
The garage attendant looked at her and yawned.
"Where do you want the car?" Claire asked sharply.
"Oh, stick it in that stall," grunted the man, and turned his back.
Claire glowered at him. She thought of a good line about rudeness. But—oh, she was too tired to fuss. She tried to run the car into the empty stall, which was not a stall, but a space, like a missing tooth, between two cars, and so narrow that she was afraid of crumpling the lordly fenders of the Gomez. She ran down the floor, returned with a flourish, thought she was going to back straight into the stall—and found she wasn't. While her nerves shrieked, and it did not seem possible that she could change gears, she managed to get the Gomez behind a truck and side-on to the stall.
"Go forward again, and cramp your wheel—sharp!" ordered the garage man.
Claire wanted to outline what she thought of him, but she merely demanded, "Will you kindly drive it in?"
"Why, sure. You bet," said the man casually. His readiness ruined her inspired fury. She was somewhat disappointed.
As she climbed out of the car and put a hand on the smart bags strapped on a running-board, the accumulated weariness struck her in a shock. She could have driven on for hours, but the instant the car was safe for the night, she went to pieces. Her ears rang, her eyes were soaked in fire, her mouth was dry, the back of her neck pinched. It was her father who took the lead as they rambled to the one tolerable hotel in the town.
In the hotel Claire was conscious of the ugliness of the poison-green walls and brass cuspidors and insurance calendars and bare floor of the office; conscious of the interesting scientific fact that all air had been replaced by the essence of cigar smoke and cooking cabbage; of the stares of the traveling men lounging in bored lines; and of the lack of welcome on the part of the night clerk, an oldish, bleached man with whiskers instead of a collar.
She tried to be important: "Two rooms with bath, please."
The bleached man stared at her, and shoved forward the register and a pen clotted with ink. She signed. He took the bags, led the way to the stairs. Anxiously she asked, "Both rooms are with bath?"
From the second step the night clerk looked down at her as though she were a specimen that ought to be pinned on the corks at once, and he said loudly, "No, ma'am. Neither of 'em. Got no rooms vacant with bawth, or bath either! Not but what we got 'em in the house. This is an up-to-date place. But one of 'm's took, and the other has kind of been out of order, the last three-four months."
From the audience of drummers below, a delicate giggle.
Claire was too angry to answer. And too tired. When, after miles of stairs, leagues of stuffy hall, she reached her coop, with its iron bed so loose-jointed that it rattled to a breath, its bureau with a list to port, and its anemic rocking-chair, she dropped on the bed, panting, her eyes closed but still brimming with fire. It did not seem that she could ever move again. She felt chloroformed. She couldn't even coax herself off the bed, to see if her father was any better off in the next room.
She was certain that she was not going to drive to Seattle. She wasn't going to drive anywhere! She was going to freight the car back to Minneapolis, and herself go back by train—Pullman!—drawing-room!
But for the thought of her father she would have fallen asleep, in her drenched tweeds. When she did force the energy to rise, she had to support herself by the bureau, by the foot of the bed, as she moved about the room, hanging up the wet suit, rubbing herself with a slippery towel, putting on a dark silk frock and pumps. She found her father sitting motionless in his room, staring at the wall. She made herself laugh at him for his gloomy emptiness. She paraded down the hall with him.
As they reached the foot of the stairs, the old one, the night clerk leaned across the desk and, in a voice that took the whole office into the conversation, quizzed, "Come from New York, eh? Well, you're quite a ways from home."
Claire nodded. She felt shyer before these solemnly staring traveling men than she ever had in a box at the opera. At the double door of the dining-room, from which the cabbage smell steamed with a lustiness undiminished by the sad passing of its youth, a man, one of the average-sized, average-mustached, average business-suited, average-brown-haired men who can never be remembered, stopped the Boltwoods and hawed, "Saw you coming into town. You've got a New York license?"
She couldn't deny it.
"Quite a ways from home, aren't you?"
She had to admit it.
She was escorted by a bouncing, black-eyed waitress to a table for four. The next table was a long one, at which seven traveling men, or local business men whose wives were at the lake for the summer, ceased trying to get nourishment out of the food, and gawped at her. Before the Boltwoods were seated, the waitress dabbed at non-existent spots on their napkins, ignored a genuine crumb on the cloth in front of Claire's plate, made motions at a cup and a formerly plated fork, and bubbled, "Autoing through?"
Claire fumbled for her chair, oozed into it, and breathed, "Yes."
"Where do you live?"
"My! You're quite a ways from home, aren't you?"
"Hamnegs roasbeef roaspork thapplesauce frypickerel springlamintsauce."
"I—I beg your pardon."
The waitress repeated.
"I—oh—oh, bring us ham and eggs. Is that all right, father?"
"You wanted same?" the waitress inquired of Mr. Boltwood.
He was intimidated. He said, "If you please," and feebly pawed at a fork.
The waitress was instantly back with soup, and a collection of china gathered by a man of much travel, catholic interests, and no taste. One of the plates alleged itself to belong to a hotel in Omaha. She pushed a pitcher of condensed milk to the exact spot where it would catch Mr. Boltwood's sleeve, brushed the crumb from in front of Claire to a shelter beneath the pink and warty sugar bowl, recovered a toothpick which had been concealed behind her glowing lips, picked for a while, gave it up, put her hands on her hips, and addressed Claire:
"How far you going?"
"Got any folks there?"
"Any—— Oh, yes, I suppose so."
"Going to stay there long?"
"Really—— We haven't decided."
"Come from New York, eh? Quite a ways from home, all right. Father in business there?"
"What's his line?"
"I beg pardon?"
"What's his line? Ouch! Jiminy, these shoes pinch my feet. I used to could dance all night, but I'm getting fat, I guess, ha! ha! Put on seven pounds last month. Ouch! Gee, they certainly do pinch my toes. What business you say your father's in?"
"I didn't say, but—— Oh, railroad."
"G. N. or N. P.?"
"I don't think I quite understand——"
Mr. Boltwood interposed, "Are the ham and eggs ready?"
"I'll beat it out and see." When she brought them, she put a spoon in Claire's saucer of peas, and demanded, "Say, you don't wear that silk dress in the auto, do you?"
"I should think you'd put a pink sash on it. Seems like it's kind of plain—it's a real pretty piece of goods, though. A pink sash would be real pretty. You dark-complected ladies always looks better for a touch of color."
Then was Claire certain that the waitress was baiting her, for the amusement of the men at the long table. She exploded. Probably the waitress did not know there had been an explosion when Claire looked coldly up, raised her brows, looked down, and poked the cold and salty slab of ham, for she was continuing:
"A light-complected lady like me don't need so much color, you notice my hair is black, but I'm light, really, Pete Liverquist says I'm a blonde brunette, gee, he certainly is killing that fellow, oh, he's a case, he sure does like to hear himself talk, my! there's Old Man Walters, he runs the telephone exchange here, I heard he went down to St. Cloud on Number 2, but I guess he couldn't of, he'll be yodeling for friend soup and a couple slabs of moo, I better beat it, I'll say so, so long."
Claire's comment was as acid as the pale beets before her, as bitter as the peas, as hard as the lumps in the watery mashed potatoes:
"I don't know whether the woman is insane or ignorant. I wish I could tell whether she was trying to make me angry for the benefit of those horrid unshaven men, or merely for her private edification."
"By me, dolly. So is this pie. Let's get some medium to levitate us up to bed. Uh—uh—— I think perhaps we'd better not try to drive clear to Seattle. If we just went through to Montana?—or even just to Bismarck?"
"Drive through with the hotels like this? My dear man, if we have one more such day, we stop right there. I hope we get by the man at the desk. I have a feeling he's lurking there, trying to think up something insulting to say to us. Oh, my dear, I hope you aren't as beastly tired as I am. My bones are hot pokers."
The man at the desk got in only one cynical question, "Driving far?" before Claire seized her father's arm and started him upstairs.
For the first time since she had been ten—and in a state of naughtiness immediately following a pronounced state of grace induced by the pulpit oratory of the new rector of St. Chrysostom's—she permitted herself the luxury of not stopping to brush her teeth before she went to bed. Her sleep was drugged—it was not sleep, but an aching exhaustion of the body which did not prevent her mind from revisualizing the road, going stupidly over the muddy stretches and sharp corners, then becoming conscious of that bed, the lump under her shoulder blades, the slope to westward, and the creak that rose every time she tossed. For at least fifteen minutes she lay awake for hours.
Thus Claire Boltwood's first voyage into democracy.
It was not so much that the sun was shining, in the morning, as that a ripple of fresh breeze came through the window. She discovered that she again longed to go on—keep going on—see new places, conquer new roads. She didn't want all good road. She wanted something to struggle against. She'd try it for one more day. She was stiff as she crawled out of bed, but a rub with cold water left her feeling that she was stronger than she ever had been; that she was a woman, not a dependent girl. Already, in the beating prairie sun-glare, the wide main street of Gopher Prairie was drying; the mud ruts flattening out. Beyond the town hovered the note of a meadow lark—sunlight in sound.
"Oh, it's a sweet morning! Sweet! We will go on! I'm terribly excited!" she laughed.
She found her father dressed. He did not know whether or not he wanted to go on. "I seem to have lost my grip on things. I used to be rather decisive. But we'll try it one more day, if you like," he said.
When she had gaily marched him downstairs, she suddenly and unhappily remembered the people she would have to face, the gibing questions she would have to answer.
The night clerk was still at the desk, as though he had slept standing. He hailed them. "Well, well! Up bright and early! Hope you folks slept well. Beds aren't so good as they might be, but we're kind of planning to get some new mattresses. But you get pretty good air to sleep in. Hope you have a fine hike today."
His voice was cordial; he was their old friend; faithful watcher of their progress. Claire found herself dimpling at him.
In the dining-room their inquisitional acquaintance, the waitress, fairly ran to them. "Sit down, folks. Waffles this morning. You want to stock up for your drive. My, ain't it an elegant morning! I hope you have a swell drive today!"
"Why!" Claire gasped, "why, they aren't rude. They care—about people they never saw before. That's why they ask questions! I never thought—I never thought! There's people in the world who want to know us without having looked us up in the Social Register! I'm so ashamed! Not that the sunshine changes my impression of this coffee. It's frightful! But that will improve. And the people—they were being friendly, all the time. Oh, Henry B., young Henry Boltwood, you and your godmother Claire have a lot to learn about the world!"
As they came into the garage, their surly acquaintance of the night before looked just as surly, but Claire tried a boisterous "Good morning!"
"Mornin'! Going north? Better take the left-hand road at Wakamin. Easier going. Drive your car out for you?"
As the car stood outside taking on gas, a man flapped up, spelled out the New York license, looked at Claire and her father, and inquired, "Quite a ways from home, aren't you?"
This time Claire did not say "Yes!" She experimented with, "Yes, quite a ways."
"Well, hope you have a good trip. Good luck!"
Claire leaned her head on her hand, thought hard. "It's I who wasn't friendly," she propounded to her father. "How much I've been losing. Though I still refuse to like that coffee!"
She noticed the sign on the air-hose of the garage—"Free Air."
"There's our motto for the pilgrimage!" she cried.
She knew the exaltation of starting out in the fresh morning for places she had never seen, without the bond of having to return at night.
Thus Claire's second voyage into democracy.
While she was starting the young man who had pulled her out of the mud and given her lunch was folding up the tarpaulin and blankets on which he had slept beside his Teal bug, in the woods three miles north of Gopher Prairie. To the high-well-born cat, Vere de Vere, Milt Daggett mused aloud, "Your ladyship, as Shakespeare says, the man that gets cold feet never wins the girl. And I'm scared, cat, clean scared."
RELEASE BRAKES—SHIFT TO THIRD
Milt Daggett had not been accurate in his implication that he had not noticed Claire at a garage in Schoenstrom. For one thing, he owned the garage.
Milt was the most prosperous young man in the village of Schoenstrom. Neither the village itself nor the nearby Strom is really schoen. The entire business district of Schoenstrom consists of Heinie Rauskukle's general store, which is brick; the Leipzig House, which is frame; the Old Home Poolroom and Restaurant, which is of old logs concealed by a frame sheathing; the farm-machinery agency, which is galvanized iron, its roof like an enlarged washboard; the church; the three saloons; and the Red Trail Garage, which is also, according to various signs, the Agency for Teal Car Best at the Test, Stonewall Tire Service Station, Sewing Machines and Binders Repaired, Dr. Hostrum the Veterinarian every Thursday, Gas Today 27c.
The Red Trail Garage is of cement and tapestry brick. In the office is a clean hardwood floor, a typewriter, and a picture of Elsie Ferguson. The establishment has an automatic rim-stretcher, a wheel jack, and a reputation for honesty.
The father of Milt Daggett was the Old Doctor, born in Maine, coming to this frontier in the day when Chippewas camped in your dooryard, and came in to help themselves to coffee, which you made of roasted corn. The Old Doctor bucked northwest blizzards, read Dickens and Byron, pulled people through typhoid, and left to Milt his shabby old medicine case and thousands of dollars—in uncollectible accounts. Mrs. Daggett had long since folded her crinkly hands in quiet death.
Milt had covered the first two years of high school by studying with the priest, and been sent to the city of St. Cloud for the last two years. His father had meant to send him to the state university. But Milt had been born to a talent for machinery. At twelve he had made a telephone that worked. At eighteen he was engineer in the tiny flour mill in Schoenstrom. At twenty-five, when Claire Boltwood chose to come tearing through his life in a Gomez-Dep, Milt was the owner, manager, bookkeeper, wrecking crew, ignition expert, thoroughly competent bill-collector, and all but one of the working force of the Red Trail Garage.
There were two factions in Schoenstrom: the retired farmers who said that German was a good enough language for anybody, and that taxes for schools and sidewalks were yes something crazy; and the group who stated that a pig-pen is a fine place, but only for pigs. To this second, revolutionary wing belonged a few of the first generation, most of the second, and all of the third; and its leader was Milt Daggett. He did not talk much, normally, but when he thought things ought to be done, he was as annoying as a machine-gun test in the lot next to a Quaker meeting.
If there had been a war, Milt would probably have been in it—rather casual, clearing his throat, reckoning and guessing that maybe his men might try going over and taking that hill ... then taking it. But all of this history concerns the year just before America spoke to Germany; and in this town buried among the cornfields and the wheat, men still thought more about the price of grain than about the souls of nations.
On the evening before Claire Boltwood left Minneapolis and adventured into democracy, Milt was in the garage. He wore union overalls that were tan where they were not grease-black; a faded blue cotton shirt; and the crown of a derby, with the rim not too neatly hacked off with a dull toad-stabber jack-knife.
Milt smiled at his assistant, Ben Sittka, and suggested, "Well, wie geht 's mit the work, eh? Like to stay and get the prof's flivver out, so he can have it in the morning?"
"You bet, boss."
"Getting to be quite a mechanic, Ben."
"I'll say so!"
"If you get stuck, come yank me out of the Old Home."
"Aw rats, boss. I'll finish it. You beat it." Ben grinned at Milt adoringly.
Milt stripped off his overalls and derby-crown, and washed his big, firm hands with gritty soft soap. He cleaned his nails with a file which he carried in his upper vest pocket in a red imitation morocco case which contained a comb, a mirror, an indelible pencil, and a note-book with the smudged pencil addresses of five girls in St. Cloud, and a memorandum about Rauskukle's car.
He put on a twisted brown tie, an old blue serge suit, and a hat which, being old and shabby, had become graceful. He ambled up the street. He couldn't have ambled more than three blocks and have remained on the street. Schoenstrom tended to leak off into jungles of tall corn.
Two men waved at him, and one demanded, "Say, Milt, is whisky good for the toothache? What d' you think! The doc said it didn't do any good. But then, gosh, he's only just out of college."
"I guess he's right."
"Is that a fact! Well, I'll keep off it then."
Two stores farther on, a bulky farmer hailed, "Say, Milt, should I get an ensilage cutter yet?"
"Yuh," in the manner of a man who knows too much to be cocksure about anything, "I don't know but what I would, Julius."
"I guess I vill then."
Minnie Rauskukle, plump, hearty Minnie, heiress to the general store, gave evidence by bridling and straightening her pigeon-like body that she was aware of Milt behind her. He did not speak to her. He ducked into the door of the Old Home Poolroom and Restaurant.
Milt ranged up to the short lunch counter, in front of the pool table where two brick-necked farm youngsters were furiously slamming balls and attacking cigarettes. Loose-jointedly Milt climbed a loose-jointed high stool and to the proprietor, Bill McGolwey, his best friend, he yawned, "You might poison me with a hamburger and a slab of apple, Mac."
"I'll just do that little thing. Look kind of grouchy tonight, Milt."
"Too much excitement in this burg. Saw three people on the streets all simultaneously to-once."
"What's been eatin' you lately?"
"Me? Nothing. Only I do get tired of this metropolis. One of these days I'm going to buck some bigger place."
"Try Gopher Prairie maybe?" suggested Mac, through the hiss and steam of the frying hamburger sandwich.
"Rats. Too small."
"Small? Why, there's darn near five thousand people there!"
"I know, but—I want to tackle some sure-nuff city. Like Duluth or New York."
"But what'd you do?"
"That's the devil of it. I don't know just what I do want to do. I could always land soft in a garage, but that's nothing new. Might hit Detroit, and learn the motor-factory end."
"Aw, you're the limit, Milt. Always looking for something new."
"That's the way to get on. The rest of this town is afraid of new things. 'Member when I suggested we all chip in on a dynamo with a gas engine and have electric lights? The hicks almost died of nervousness."
"Yuh, that's true, but—— You stick here, Milt. You and me will just nachly run this burg."
"I'll say! Only—— Gosh, Mac, I would like to go to a real show, once. And find out how radio works. And see 'em put in a big suspension bridge!"
Milt left the Old Home rather aimlessly. He told himself that he positively would not go back and help Ben Sittka get out the prof's car. So he went back and helped Ben get out the prof's car, and drove the same to the prof's. The prof, otherwise professor, otherwise mister, James Martin Jones, B.A., and Mrs. James Martin Jones welcomed him almost as noisily as had Mac. They begged him to come in. With Mr. Jones he discussed—no, ye Claires of Brooklyn Heights, this garage man and this threadbare young superintendent of a paintbare school, talking in a town that was only a comma on the line, did not discuss corn-growing, nor did they reckon to guess that by heck the constabule was carryin' on with the Widdy Perkins. They spoke of fish-culture, Elihu Root, the spiritualistic evidences of immortality, government ownership, self-starters for flivvers, and the stories of Irvin Cobb.
Milt went home earlier than he wanted to. Because Mr. Jones was the only man in town besides the priest who read books, because Mrs. Jones was the only woman who laughed about any topics other than children and family sickness, because he wanted to go to their house every night, Milt treasured his welcome as a sacred thing, and kept himself from calling on them more than once a week.
He stopped on his way to the garage to pet Emil Baumschweiger's large gray cat, publicly known as Rags, but to Milt and to the lady herself recognized as the unfortunate Countess Vere de Vere—perhaps the only person of noble ancestry and mysterious past in Milt's acquaintance. The Baumschweigers did not treat their animals well; Emil kicked the bay mare, and threw pitchforks at Vere de Vere. Milt saluted her and sympathized:
"You have a punk time, don't you, countess? Like to beat it to Minneapolis with me?"
The countess said that she did indeed have an extraordinarily punk time, and she sang to Milt the hymn of the little gods of the warm hearth. Then Milt's evening dissipations were over. Schoenstrom has movies only once a week. He sat in the office of his garage ruffling through a weekly digest of events. Milt read much, though not too easily. He had no desire to be a poet, an Indo-Iranian etymologist, a lecturer to women's clubs, or the secretary of state. But he did rouse to the marvels hinted in books and magazines; to large crowds, the mechanism of submarines, palm trees, gracious women.
He laid down the magazine. He stared at the wall. He thought about nothing. He seemed to be fumbling for something about which he could deliciously think if he could but grasp it. Without quite visualizing either wall or sea, he was yet recalling old dreams of a moonlit wall by a warm stirring southern sea. If there was a girl in the dream she was intangible as the scent of the night. Presently he was asleep, a not at all romantic figure, rather ludicrously tipped to one side in his office chair, his large solid shoes up on the desk.
He half woke, and filtered to what he called home—one room in the cottage of an oldish woman who had prejudices against the perilous night air. He was too sleepy to go through any toilet save pulling off his shoes, and achieving an unconvincing wash at the little stand, whose crackly varnish was marked with white rings from the toothbrush mug.
"I feel about due to pull off some fool stunt. Wonder what it will be?" he complained, as he flopped on the bed.
He was up at six, and at a quarter to seven was at work in the garage. He spent a large part of the morning in trying to prove to a customer that even a Teal car, best at the test, would not give perfect service if the customer persisted in forgetting to fill the oil-well, the grease-cups, and the battery.
At three minutes after twelve Milt left the garage to go to dinner. The fog of the morning had turned to rain. McGolwey was not at the Old Home. Sometimes Mac got tired of serving meals, and for a day or two he took to a pocket flask, and among his former customers the cans of prepared meat at Rauskukle's became popular. Milt found him standing under the tin awning of the general store. He had a troubled hope of keeping Mac from too long a vacation with the pocket flask. But Mac was already red-eyed. He seemed only half to recognize Milt.
"Swell day!" said Milt.
"Road darn muddy."
"I should worry. Yea, bo', I'm feelin' good!"
At eleven minutes past twelve a Gomez-Dep roadster appeared down the road, stopped at the garage. To Milt it was as exciting as the appearance of a comet to a watching astronomer.
"What kind of a car do you call that, Milt?" asked a loafer.
"Never heard of it. Looks too heavy."
This was sacrilege. Milt stormed, "Why, you poor floof, it's one of the best cars in the world. Imported from France. That looks like a special-made American body, though. Trouble with you fellows is, you're always scared of anything that's new. Too—heavy! Huh! Always wanted to see a Gomez—never have, except in pictures. And I believe that's a New York license. Let me at it!"
He forgot noon-hunger, and clumped through the rain to the garage. He saw a girl step from the car. He stopped, in the doorway of the Old Home, in uneasy shyness. He told himself he didn't "know just what it is about her—she isn't so darn unusually pretty and yet—gee—— Certainly isn't a girl to get fresh with. Let Ben take care of her. Like to talk to her, and yet I'd be afraid if I opened my mouth, I'd put my foot in it."
He was for the first time seeing a smart woman. This dark, slender, fine-nerved girl, in her plain, rough, closely-belted, gray suit, her small black Glengarry cocked on one side of her smooth hair, her little kid gloves, her veil, was as delicately adjusted as an aeroplane engine.
Milt wanted to trumpet her exquisiteness to the world, so he growled to a man standing beside him, "Swell car. Nice-lookin' girl, kind of."
"Kind of skinny, though. I like 'em with some meat on 'em," yawned the man.
No, Milt did not strike him to earth. He insisted feebly, "Nice clothes she's got, though."
"Oh, not so muchamuch. I seen a woman come through here yesterday that was swell, though—had on a purple dress and white shoes and a hat big 's a bushel."
"Well, I don't know, I kind of like those simple things," apologized Milt.
He crept toward the garage. The girl was inside. He inspected the slope-topped, patent-leather motoring trunk on the rack at the rear of the Gomez-Dep. He noticed a middle-aged man waiting in the car. "Must be her father. Probably—maybe she isn't married then." He could not get himself to shout at the man, as he usually did. He entered the garage office; from the inner door he peeped at the girl, who was talking to his assistant about changing an inner tube.
That Ben Sittka whom an hour ago he had cajoled as a promising child he now admired for the sniffing calmness with which he was demanding, "Want a red or gray tube?"
"Really, I don't know. Which is the better?" The girl's voice was curiously clear.
Milt passed Claire Boltwood as though he did not see her; stood at the rear of the garage kicking at the tires of a car, his back to her. Over and over he was grumbling, "If I just knew one girl like that—— Like a picture. Like—like a silver vase on a blue cloth!"
Ben Sittka did not talk to the girl while he inserted the tube in the spare casing. Only, in the triumphant moment when the parted ends of the steel rim snapped back together, he piped, "Going far?"
"Yes, rather. To Seattle."
Milt stared at the cobweb-grayed window. "Now I know what I was planning to do. I'm going to Seattle," he said.
The girl was gone at twenty-nine minutes after twelve. At twenty-nine and a half minutes after, Milt remarked to Ben Sittka, "I'm going to take a trip. Uh? Now don't ask questions. You take charge of the garage until you hear from me. Get somebody to help you. G'-by."
He drove his Teal bug out of the garage. At thirty-two minutes after twelve he was in his room, packing his wicker suitcase by the method of throwing things in and stamping on the case till it closed. In it he had absolutely all of his toilet refinements and wardrobe except the important portion already in use. They consisted, according to faithful detailed report, of four extra pairs of thick yellow and white cotton socks; two shirts, five collars, five handkerchiefs; a pair of surprisingly vain dancing pumps; high tan laced boots; three suits of cheap cotton underclothes; his Sunday suit, which was dead black in color, and unimaginative in cut; four ties; a fagged toothbrush, a comb and hairbrush, a razor, a strop, shaving soap in a mug; a not very clean towel; and nothing else whatever.
To this he added his entire library and private picture gallery, consisting of Ivanhoe, Ben-Hur, his father's copy of Byron, a wireless manual, and the 1916 edition of Motor Construction and Repairing: the art collection, one colored Sunday supplement picture of a princess lunching in a Provence courtyard, and a half-tone of Colonel Paul Beck landing in an early military biplane. Under this last, in a pencil scrawl now blurred to grayness, Milt had once written, "This what Ill be aviator."
What he was to wear was a piercing trouble. Till eleven minutes past twelve that day he had not cared. People accepted his overalls at anything except a dance, and at the dances he was the only one who wore pumps. But in his discovery of Claire Boltwood he had perceived that dressing is an art. Before he had packed, he had unhappily pawed at the prized black suit. It had become stupid. "Undertaker!" he growled.
With a shrug which indicated that he had nothing else, he had exchanged his overalls for a tan flannel shirt, black bow tie, thick pigskin shoes, and the suit he had worn the evening before, his best suit of two years ago—baggy blue serge coat and trousers. He could not know it, but they were surprisingly graceful on his wiry, firm, white body.
In his pockets were a roll of bills and an unexpectedly good gold watch. For warmth he had a winter ulster, an old-fashioned turtle-neck sweater, and a raincoat heavy as tarpaulin. He plunged into the raincoat, ran out, galloped to Rauskukle's store, bought the most vehement cap in the place—a plaid of cerise, orange, emerald green, ultramarine, and five other guaranteed fashionable colors. He stocked up with food for roadside camping.
In the humping tin-covered tail of the bug was a good deal of room, and this he filled with motor extras, a shotgun and shells, a pair of skates, and all his camping kit as used on his annual duck-hunting trip to Man Trap Lake.
"I'm a darned fool to take everything I own but—— Might be gone a whole month," he reflected.
He had only one possession left—a check book, concealed from the interested eye of his too maternal landlady by sticking it under the stair carpet. This he retrieved. It showed a balance of two hundred dollars. There was ten dollars in the cash register in the office, for Ben Sittka. The garage would, with the mortgage deducted, be worth nearly two thousand. This was his fortune.
He bolted into the kitchen and all in one shout he informed his landlady, "Called out of town, li'l trip, b'lieve I don't owe you an'thing, here's six dollars, two weeks' notice, dunno just when I be back."
Before she could issue a questionnaire he was out in the bug. He ran through town. At his friend McGolwey; now loose-lipped and wabbly, sitting in the rain on a pile of ties behind the railroad station, he yelled, "So long, Mac. Take care yourself, old hoss. Off on li'l trip."
He stopped in front of the "prof's," tooted till the heads of the Joneses appeared at the window, waved and shouted, "G'-by, folks. Goin' outa town."
Then, while freedom and the distant Pacific seemed to rush at him over the hood, he whirled out of town. It was two minutes to one—forty-seven minutes since Claire Boltwood had entered Schoenstrom.
He stopped only once. His friend Lady Vere de Vere was at the edge of town, on a scientific exploring trip in the matter of ethnology and field mice. She hailed him, "Mrwr? Me mrwr!"
"You don't say so!" Milt answered in surprise. "Well, if I promised to take you, I'll keep my word." He vaulted out, tucked Vere de Vere into the seat, protecting her from the rain with the tarpaulin winter radiator-cover.
His rut-skipping car overtook the mud-walloping Gomez-Dep in an hour, and pulled it out of the mud.
Before Milt slept that night, in his camp three miles from Gopher Prairie, he went through religious rites.
"Girl like her, she's darn particular about her looks. I'm a sloppy hound. Used to be snappier about my clothes when I was in high school. Getting lazy—too much like Mac. Think of me sleeping in my clothes last night!"
"Mrwr!" rebuked the cat.
"You're dead right. Fierce is the word. Nev' will sleep in my duds again, puss. That is, when I have a reg'lar human bed. Course camping, different. But still—— Let's see all the funny things we can do to us."
He shaved—two complete shaves, from lather to towel. He brushed his hair. He sat down by a campfire sheltered between two rocks, and fought his nails, though they were discouragingly crammed with motor grease. Throughout this interesting but quite painful ceremony Milt kept up a conversation between himself as the World's Champion Dude, and his cat as Vallay. But when there was nothing more to do, and the fire was low, and Vere de Vere asleep in the sleeve of the winter ulster, his bumbling voice slackened; in something like agony he muttered:
"But oh, what's the use? I can't ever be anything but a dub! Cleaning my nails, to make a hit with a girl that's got hands like hers! It's a long trail to Seattle, but it's a darn sight longer one to being—being—well, sophisticated. Oh! And incidentally, what the deuce am I going to do in Seattle if I do get there?"
THE LAND OF BILLOWING CLOUDS
Never a tawny-beached ocean has the sweetness of the prairie slew. Rippling and blue, with long grass up to its edge, a spot of dancing light set in the miles of rustling wheat, it retains even in July, on an afternoon of glare and brazen locusts, the freshness of a spring morning. A thousand slews, a hundred lakes bordered with rippling barley or tinkling bells of the flax, Claire passed. She had left the occasional groves of oak and poplar and silver birch, and come out on the treeless Great Plains.
She had learned to call the slews "pugholes," and to watch for ducks at twilight. She had learned that about the pugholes flutter choirs of crimson-winged blackbirds; that the ugly brown birds squatting on fence-rails were the divine-voiced meadow larks; that among the humble cowbird citizens of the pastures sometimes flaunted a scarlet tanager or an oriole; and that no rose garden has the quaint and hardy beauty of the Indian paint brushes and rag babies and orange milkweed in the prickly, burnt-over grass between roadside and railway line.
She had learned that what had seemed rudeness in garage men and hotel clerks was often a resentful reflection of her own Eastern attitude that she was necessarily superior to a race she had been trained to call "common people." If she spoke up frankly, they made her one of their own, and gave her companionable aid.
For two days of sunshine and drying mud she followed a road flung straight across flat wheatlands, then curving among low hills. Often there were no fences; she was so intimately in among the grain that the fenders of the car brushed wheat stalks, and she became no stranger, but a part of all this vast-horizoned land. She forgot that she was driving, as she let the car creep on, while she was transported by Armadas of clouds, prairie clouds, wisps of vapor like a ribbed beach, or mounts of cumulus swelling to gold-washed snowy peaks.
The friendliness of the bearing earth gave her a calm that took no heed of passing hours. Even her father, the abstracted man of affairs, nodded to dusty people along the road; to a jolly old man whose bulk rolled and shook in a tiny, rhythmically creaking buggy, to women in the small abrupt towns with their huge red elevators and their long, flat-roofed stores.
Claire had discovered America, and she felt stronger, and all her days were colored with the sun.
She had discovered, too, that she could adventure. No longer was she haunted by the apprehension that had whispered to her as she had left Minneapolis. She knew a thrill when she hailed—as though it were a passing ship—an Illinois car across whose dust-caked back was a banner "Chicago to the Yellowstone." She experienced a new sensation of common humanness when, on a railway paralleling the wagon road for miles, the engineer of a freight waved his hand to her, and tooted the whistle in greeting.
Her father was easily tired, but he drowsed through the early afternoons when a none-too-digestible small-town lunch was as lead within him. Despite the beauty of the land and the joy of pushing on, they both had things to endure.
After lunch, it was sometimes an agony to Claire to keep awake. Her eyes felt greasy from the food, or smarted with the sun-glare. In the still air, after the morning breeze had been burnt out, the heat from the engine was a torment about her feet; and if there was another car ahead, the trail of dust sifted into her throat. Unless there was traffic to keep her awake, she nodded at the wheel; she was merely a part of a machine that ran on without seeming to make any impression on the prairie's endlessness.
Over and over there were the same manipulations: slow for down hill, careful of sand at the bottom, letting her out on a smooth stretch, waving to a lonely farmwife in her small, baked dooryard, slow to pass a hay-wagon, gas for up the next hill, and repeat the round all over again. But she was joyous till noon; and with mid-afternoon a new strength came which, as rose crept above the golden haze of dust, deepened into serene meditation.
And she was finding the one secret of long-distance driving—namely, driving; keeping on, thinking by fifty-mile units, not by the ten-mile stretches of Long Island runs; and not fretting over anything whatever. She seemed charmed; if she had a puncture—why, she put on the spare. If she ran out of gas—why, any passing driver would lend her a gallon. Nothing, it seemed, could halt her level flight across the giant land.
She rarely lost her way. She was guided by the friendly trail signs—those big red R's and L's on fence post and telephone pole, magically telling the way from the Mississippi to the Pacific.
Her father's occasional musing talk kept her from loneliness. He was a good touring companion. Motoring is not the best occasion for epigrams, satire, and the Good One You Got Off at the Lambs' Club last night. Such verbiage on motor trips invariably results in the mysterious finding of the corpse of a strange man, well dressed, hidden beside the road. Claire and her father mumbled, "Good farmhouse—brick," or "Nice view," and smiled, and were for miles as silent as the companionable sky.
She thought of the people she knew, especially of Jeff Saxton. But she could not clearly remember his lean earnest face. Between her and Jeff were sweeping sunny leagues. But she was not lonely. Certainly she was not lonely for a young man with a raincoat, a cat, and an interest in Japan.
No singer after a first concert has felt more triumphant than Claire when she crossed her first state-line; rumbled over the bridge across the Red River into North Dakota. To see Dakota car licenses everywhere, instead of Minnesota, was like the sensation of street signs in a new language. And when she found a good hotel in Fargo and had a real bath, she felt that by her own efforts she had earned the right to enjoy it.
Mr. Boltwood caught her enthusiasm. Dinner was a festival, and in iced tea the peaceful conquistadores drank the toast of the new Spanish Main; and afterward, arm in arm, went chattering to the movies.
In front of the Royal Palace, Pictures, 4 Great Acts Vaudeville 4, was browsing a small, beetle-like, tin-covered car.
"Dad! Look! I'm sure—yes, of course, there's his suitcase—that's the car of that nice boy—don't you remember?—the one that pulled us out of the mud at—I don't remember the name of the place. Apparently he's keeping going. I remember; he's headed for Seattle, too. We'll look for him in the theater. Oh, the darling, there's his cat! What was the funny name he gave her—the Marchioness Montmorency or something?"
Lady Vere de Vere, afraid of Fargo and movie crowds, but trusting in her itinerant castle, the bug, was curled in Milt Daggett's ulster, in the bottom of the car. She twinkled her whiskers at Claire, and purred to a stroking hand.
With the excitement of one trying to find the address of a friend in a strange land Claire looked over the audience when the lights came on before the vaudeville. In the second row she saw Milt's stiffish, rope-colored hair—surprisingly smooth above an astoundingly clean new tan shirt of mercerized silk.
He laughed furiously at the dialogue between Pete-Rosenheim & Larose-Bettina, though it contained the cheese joke, the mother-in-law joke, and the joke about the wife rifling her husband's pockets.
"Our young friend seems to have enviable youthful spirits," commented Mr. Boltwood.
"Now, no superiority! He's probably never seen a real vaudeville show. Wouldn't it be fun to take him to the Winter Garden or the Follies for the first time!... Instead of being taken by Jeff Saxton, and having the humor, oh! so articulately explained!"
The pictures were resumed; the film which, under ten or twelve different titles, Claire had already seen, even though Brooklyn Heights does not devote Saturday evening to the movies. The badman, the sheriff—an aged party with whiskers and boots—the holdup, the sad eyes of the sheriff's daughter—also an aged party, but with a sunbonnet and the most expensive rouge—the crook's reformation, and his violent adherence to law and order; this libel upon the portions of these United States lying west of longitude 101 deg. Claire had seen too often. She dragged her father back to the hotel, sent him to bed, and entered her room—to find a telegram upon the bureau.
She had sent her friends a list of the places at which she would be likely to stop. The message was from Jeff Saxton, in Brooklyn. It brought to her mind the steady shine of his glasses—the most expensive glasses, with the very best curved lenses—as it demanded:
"Received letter about trip surprised anxious will tire you out fatigue prairie roads bad for your father mountain roads dangerous strongly advise go only part way then take train. GEOFFREY."
She held the telegram, flipping her fingers against one end of it as she debated. She remembered how the wide world had flowed toward her over the hood of the Gomez all day. She wrote in answer:
"Awful perils of road, two punctures, split infinitive, eggs at lunch questionable, but struggle on."
Before she sent it she held council with her father. She sat on the foot of his bed and tried to sound dutiful. "I don't want to do anything that's bad for you, daddy. But isn't it taking your mind away from business?"
"Ye-es, I think it is. Anyway, we'll try it a few days more."
"I fancy we can stand up under the strain and perils. I think we can persuade some of these big farmers to come to the rescue if we encounter any walruses or crocodiles among the wheat. And I have a feeling that if we ever get stuck, our friend of the Teal bug will help us."
"Probably never see him again. He'll skip on ahead of us."
"Of course. We haven't laid an eye on him, along the road. He must have gotten into Fargo long before we did. Now tomorrow I think——"
THE GREAT AMERICAN FRYING PAN
It was Claire's first bad day since the hole in the mud. She had started gallantly, scooting along the level road that flies straight west of Fargo. But at noon she encountered a restaurant which made eating seem an evil.
That they might have fair fame among motorists the commercial club of Reaper had set at the edge of town a sign "Welcome to Reaper, a Live Town—Speed Limit 8 Miles perhr." Being interpreted, that sign meant that if you went much over twenty miles an hour on the main street, people might glance at you; and that the real welcome, the only impression of Reaper that tourists were likely to carry away, was the welcome in the one restaurant. It was called the Eats Garden. As Claire and her father entered, they were stifled by a belch of smoke from the frying pan in the kitchen. The room was blocked by a huge lunch counter; there was only one table, covered with oil cloth decorated with venerable spots of dried egg yolk.
The waiter-cook, whose apron was gravy-patterned, with a border and stomacher of plain gray dirt, grumbled, "Whadyuhwant?"
Claire sufficiently recovered to pick out the type from the fly specks on the menu, and she ordered a small steak and coffee for her father; for herself tea, boiled eggs, toast.
"Toast? We ain't got any toast!"
"Well, can't you make it?"
"Oh, I suppose I could——"
When they came, the slices of toast were an inch thick, burnt on one side and raw on the other. The tea was bitter and the eggs watery. Her father reported that his steak was high-test rawhide, and his coffee—well, he wasn't sure just what substitute had been used for chicory, but he thought it was lukewarm quinine.
Claire raged: "You know, this town really has aspirations. They're beginning to build such nice little bungalows, and there's a fine clean bank—— Then they permit this scoundrel to advertise the town among strangers, influential strangers, in motors, by serving food like this! I suppose they think that they arrest criminals here, yet this restaurant man is a thief, to charge real money for food like this—— Yes, and he's a murderer!"
"Oh, come now, dolly!"
"Yes he is, literally. He must in his glorious career have given chronic indigestion to thousands of people—shortened their lives by years. That's wholesale murder. If I were the authorities here, I'd be indulgent to the people who only murder one or two people, but imprison this cook for life. Really! I mean it!"
"Well, he probably does the best he——"
"He does not! These eggs and this bread were perfectly good, before he did black magic over them. And did you see the contemptuous look he gave me when I was so eccentric as to order toast? Oh, Reaper, Reaper, you desire a modern town, yet I wonder if you know how many thousands of tourists go from coast to coast, cursing you? If I could only hang that restaurant man—and the others like him—in a rope of his own hempen griddle cakes! The Great American Frying Pan! I don't expect men building a new town to have time to read Hugh Walpole and James Branch Cabell, but I do expect them to afford a cook who can fry eggs!"
As she paid the check, Claire tried to think of some protest which would have any effect on the obese wits of the restaurant man. In face of his pink puffiness she gave it up. Her failure as a Citizeness Fixit sent her out of the place in a fury, carried her on in a dusty whirl till the engine spat, sounded tired and reflective, and said it guessed it wouldn't go any farther that day.
Now that she had something to do, Claire became patient. "Run out of gas. Isn't it lucky I got that can for an extra gallon?"
But there was plenty of gas. There was no discernible reason why the car should not go. She started the engine. It ran for half a minute and quit. All the plugs showed sparks. No wires were detached in the distributor. There was plenty of water, and the oil was not clogged. And that ended Claire's knowledge of the inside of a motor.
She stopped two motorists. The first was sure that there was dirt on the point of the needle valve, in the carburetor. While Claire shuddered lest he never get it back, he took out the needle valve, wiped it, put it back—and the engine was again started, and again, with great promptness, it stopped.
The second Good Samaritan knew that one of the wires in the distributor must be detached and, though she assured him that she had inspected them, he looked pityingly at her smart sports-suit, said, "Well, I'll just take a look," and removed the distributor cover. He also scratched his head, felt of the fuses under the cowl, scratched his cheek, poked a finger at the carburetor, rubbed his ear, said, "Well, uh——" looked to see if there was water and gas, sighed, "Can't just seem to find out what's the trouble," shot at his own car, and escaped.
Claire had been highly grateful and laudatory to both of them—but she remained here, ten miles from nowhere. It was a beautiful place. Down a hill the wheat swam toward a village whose elevator was a glistening tower. Mud-hens gabbled in a slew, alfalfa shone with unearthly green, and bees went junketing toward a field of red clover. But she had the motorist's fever to go on. The road behind and in front was very long, very white—and very empty.
Her father, out of much thought and a solid ignorance about all of motoring beyond the hiring of chauffeurs and the payment of bills, suggested, "Uh, dolly, have you looked to see if these, uh—— Is the carburetor all right?"