The Table of Contents is not part of the original book.
In page 212 there is an incomplete sentence "Poor Tad was". This sentence is incomplete in this book as well as the many editions verified.
THE TRAIL OF
OF THE SERIOUSNESS
OUR MR. WRENN
HARPER & BROTHERS PUBLISHERS
NEW YORK AND LONDON
THE TRAIL OF THE HAWK
Copyright, 1915, by Harper & Brothers
* * * * *
Part I 1
CHAPTER I 3 CHAPTER II 16 CHAPTER III 26 CHAPTER IV 35 CHAPTER V 46 CHAPTER VI 58 CHAPTER VII 71 CHAPTER VIII 78 CHAPTER IX 86 CHAPTER X 100 CHAPTER XI 106 CHAPTER XII 115
Part II 125
CHAPTER XIII 127 CHAPTER XIV 135 CHAPTER XV 146 CHAPTER XVI 156 CHAPTER XVII 162 CHAPTER XVIII 167 CHAPTER XIX 174 CHAPTER XX 179 CHAPTER XXI 187 CHAPTER XXII 202 CHAPTER XXIII 210
Part III 223
CHAPTER XXIV 225 CHAPTER XXV 231 CHAPTER XXVI 242 CHAPTER XXVII 248 CHAPTER XXVIII 261 CHAPTER XXIX 270 CHAPTER XXX 282 CHAPTER XXXI 290 CHAPTER XXXII 300 CHAPTER XXXIII 310 CHAPTER XXXIV 324 CHAPTER XXXV 333 CHAPTER XXXVI 342 CHAPTER XXXVII 352 CHAPTER XXXVIII 362 CHAPTER XXXIX 368 CHAPTER XL 379 CHAPTER XLI 387 CHAPTER XLII 400
* * * * *
TO THE OPTIMISTIC REBELS THROUGH WHOSE TALK AT LUNCHEON THE AUTHOR WATCHES THE MANY-COLORED SPECTACLE OF LIFE—GEORGE SOULE, HARRISON SMITH, ALLAN UPDEGRAFF, F. K. NOYES, ALFRED HARCOURT, B. W. HUEBSCH.
* * * * *
THE ADVENTURE OF YOUTH
THE TRAIL OF THE HAWK
Carl Ericson was being naughty. Probably no boy in Joralemon was being naughtier that October Saturday afternoon. He had not half finished the wood-piling which was his punishment for having chased the family rooster thirteen times squawking around the chicken-yard, while playing soldiers with Bennie Rusk.
He stood in the middle of the musty woodshed, pessimistically kicking at the scattered wood. His face was stern, as became a man of eight who was a soldier of fortune famed from the front gate to the chicken-yard. An unromantic film of dirt hid the fact that his Scandinavian cheeks were like cream-colored silk stained with rose-petals. A baby Norseman, with only an average boy's prettiness, yet with the whiteness and slenderness of a girl's little finger. A back-yard boy, in baggy jacket and pants, gingham blouse, and cap whose lining oozed back over his ash-blond hair, which was tangled now like trampled grass, with a tiny chip riding grotesquely on one flossy lock.
The darkness of the shed displeased Carl. The whole basic conception of work bored him. The sticks of wood were personal enemies to which he gave insulting names. He had always admired the hard bark and metallic resonance of the ironwood, but he hated the poplar—"popple" it is called in Joralemon, Minnesota. Poplar becomes dry and dusty, and the bark turns to a monstrously mottled and evil greenish-white. Carl announced to one poplar stick, "I could lick you! I'm a gen'ral, I am." The stick made no reply whatever, and he contemptuously shied it out into the chickweed which matted the grubby back yard. This necessitated his sneaking out and capturing it by stalking it from the rear, lest it rouse the Popple Army.
He loitered outside the shed, sniffing at the smoke from burning leaves—the scent of autumn and migration and wanderlust. He glanced down between houses to the reedy shore of Joralemon Lake. The surface of the water was smooth, and tinted like a bluebell, save for one patch in the current where wavelets leaped with October madness in sparkles of diamond fire. Across the lake, woods sprinkled with gold-dust and paprika broke the sweep of sparse yellow stubble, and a red barn was softly brilliant in the caressing sunlight and lively air of the Minnesota prairie. Over there was the field of valor, where grown-up men with shiny shotguns went hunting prairie-chickens; the Great World, leading clear to the Red River Valley and Canada.
Three mallard-ducks, with necks far out and wings beating hurriedly, shot over Carl's head. From far off a gun-shot floated echoing through forest hollows; in the waiting stillness sounded a rooster's crow, distant, magical.
"I want to go hunting!" mourned Carl, as he trailed back into the woodshed. It seemed darker than ever and smelled of moldy chips. He bounced like an enraged chipmunk. His phlegmatic china-blue eyes filmed with tears. "Won't pile no more wood!" he declared.
Naughty he undoubtedly was. But since he knew that his father, Oscar Ericson, the carpenter, all knuckles and patched overalls and bad temper, would probably whip him for rebellion, he may have acquired merit. He did not even look toward the house to see whether his mother was watching him—his farm-bred, worried, kindly, small, flat-chested, pinch-nosed, bleached, twangy-voiced, plucky Norwegian mother. He marched to the workshop and brought a collection of miscellaneous nails and screws out to a bare patch of earth in front of the chicken-yard. They were the Nail People, the most reckless band of mercenaries the world has ever known, led by old General Door-Hinge, who was somewhat inclined to collapse in the middle, but possessed of the unusual virtue of eyes in both ends of him. He had explored the deepest canyons of the woodshed, and victoriously led his ten-penny warriors against the sumacs in the vacant lot beyond Irving Lamb's house.
Carl marshaled the Nail People, sticking them upright in the ground. After reasoning sternly with an intruding sparrow, thus did the dauntless General Door-Hinge address them:
"Men, there's a nawful big army against us, but le's die like men, my men. Forwards!"
As the veteran finished, a devastating fire of stones enfiladed the company, and one by one they fell, save for the commander himself, who bowed his grizzled wrought-steel head and sobbed, "The brave boys done their duty."
From across the lake rolled another gun-shot.
Carl dug his grimy fingers into the earth. "Jiminy! I wisht I was out hunting. Why can't I never go? I guess I'll pile the wood, but I'm gonna go seek-my-fortune after that."
* * * * *
Since Carl Ericson (some day to be known as "Hawk" Ericson) was the divinely restless seeker of the romance that must—or we die!—lie beyond the hills, you first see him in action; find him in the year 1893, aged eight, leading revolutions in the back yard. But equally, since this is a serious study of an average young American, there should be an indication of his soil-nourished ancestry.
Carl was second-generation Norwegian; American-born, American in speech, American in appearance, save for his flaxen hair and china-blue eyes; and, thanks to the flag-decked public school, overwhelmingly American in tradition. When he was born the "typical Americans" of earlier stocks had moved to city palaces or were marooned on run-down farms. It was Carl Ericson, not a Trowbridge or a Stuyvesant or a Lee or a Grant, who was the "typical American" of his period. It was for him to carry on the American destiny of extending the Western horizon; his to restore the wintry Pilgrim virtues and the exuberant, October, partridge-drumming days of Daniel Boone; then to add, in his own or another generation, new American aspirations for beauty.
They are the New Yankees, these Scandinavians of Wisconsin and Minnesota and the Dakotas, with a human breed that can grow, and a thousand miles to grow in. The foreign-born parents, when they first come to the Northern Middlewest, huddle in unpainted farm-houses with grassless dooryards and fly-zizzing kitchens and smelly dairies, set on treeless, shadeless, unsoftened leagues of prairie or bunched in new clearings ragged with small stumps. The first generation are alien and forlorn. The echoing fjords of Trondhjem and the moors of Finmark have clipped their imaginations, silenced their laughter, hidden with ice their real tenderness. In America they go sedulously to the bare Lutheran church and frequently drink ninety-per-cent. alcohol. They are also heroes, and have been the makers of a new land, from the days of Indian raids and ox-teams and hillside dug-outs to now, repeating in their patient hewing the history of the Western Reserve.... In one generation or even in one decade they emerge from the desolation of being foreigners. They, and the Germans, pay Yankee mortgages with blood and sweat. They swiftly master politics, voting for honesty rather than for hand-shakes; they make keen, scrupulously honest business deals; send their children to school; accumulate land—one section, two sections—or move to town to keep shop and ply skilled tools; become Methodists and Congregationalists; are neighborly with Yankee manufacturers and doctors and teachers; and in one generation, or less, are completely American.
So was it with Carl Ericson. His carpenter father had come from Norway, by way of steerage and a farm in Wisconsin, changing his name from Ericsen. Ericson senior owned his cottage and, though he still said, "Aye ban going," he talked as naturally of his own American tariff and his own Norwegian-American Governor as though he had five generations of Connecticut or Virginia ancestry.
Now, it was Carl's to go on, to seek the flowering.
* * * * *
Unconscious that he was the heir-apparent of the age, but decidedly conscious that the woodshed was dark, Carl finished the pile.
From the step of the woodshed he regarded the world with plaintive boredom.
"Ir-r-r-r-rving!" he called.
No answer from Irving, the next-door boy.
The village was rustlingly quiet. Carl skipped slowly and unhappily to the group of box-elders beside the workshop and stuck his finger-nails into the cobwebby crevices of the black bark. He made overtures for company on any terms to a hop-robin, a woolly worm, and a large blue fly, but they all scorned his advances, and when he yelled an ingratiating invitation to a passing dog it seemed to swallow its tail and ears as it galloped off. No one else appeared.
Before the kitchen window he quavered:
In the kitchen, the muffled pounding of a sad-iron upon the padded ironing-board.
Mrs. Ericson's whitey-yellow hair, pale eyes, and small nervous features were shadowed behind the cotton fly-screen.
"Vell?" she said.
"I haven't got noth-ing to do-o."
"Go pile the vood."
"I piled piles of it."
"Then you can go and play."
"I been playing."
"Then play some more."
"I ain't got nobody to play with."
"Then find somebody. But don't you step vun step out of this yard."
"I don't see why I can't go outa the yard!"
"Because I said so."
Again the sound of the sad-iron.
Carl invented a game in which he was to run in circles, but not step on the grass; he made the tenth inspection that day of the drying hazelnuts whose husks were turning to seal-brown on the woodshed roof; he hunted for a good new bottle to throw at Irving Lamb's barn; he mended his sling-shot; he perched on a sawbuck and watched the street. Nothing passed, nothing made an interesting rattling, except one democrat wagon.
From over the water another gun-shot murmured of distant hazards.
Carl jumped down from the sawbuck and marched deliberately out of the yard, along Oak Street toward The Hill, the smart section of Joralemon, where live in exclusive state five large houses that get painted nearly every year.
"I'm gonna seek-my-fortune. I'm gonna find Bennie and go swimming," he vowed. Calmly as Napoleon defying his marshals, General Carl disregarded the sordid facts that it was too late in the year to go swimming, and that Benjamin Franklin Rusk couldn't swim, anyway. He clumped along, planting his feet with spats of dust, very dignified and melancholy but, like all small boys, occasionally going mad and running in chase of nothing at all till he found it.
He stopped before the House with Mysterious Shutters.
Carl had never made b'lieve fairies or princes; rather, he was in the secret world of boyhood a soldier, a trapper, or a swing-brakeman on the M. & D. R.R. But he was bespelled by the suggestion of grandeur in the iron fence and gracious trees and dark carriage-shed of the House with Shutters. It was a large, square, solid brick structure, set among oaks and sinister pines, once the home, or perhaps the mansion, of Banker Whiteley, but unoccupied for years. Leaves rotted before the deserted carriage-shed. The disregarded steps in front were seamed with shallow pools of water for days after a rain. The windows had always been darkened, but not by broad-slatted outside shutters, smeared with house-paint to which stuck tiny black hairs from the paint-brush, like the ordinary frame houses of Joralemon. Instead, these windows were masked with inside shutters haughtily varnished to a hard refined brown.
To-day the windows were open, the shutters folded; furniture was being moved in; and just inside the iron gate a frilly little girl was playing with a whitewashed conch-shell.
She must have been about ten at that time, since Carl was eight. She was a very dressy and complacent child, possessed not only of a clean white muslin with three rows of tucks, immaculate bronze boots, and a green tam-o'-shanter, but also of a large hair-ribbon, a ribbon sash, and a silver chain with a large, gold-washed, heart-shaped locket. She was softly plump, softly gentle of face, softly brown of hair, and softly pleasant of speech.
"Hello!" said she.
"What's your name, little boy?"
"Ain't a little boy. I'm Carl Ericson."
"Oh, are you? I'm——"
"I'm gonna have a shotgun when I'm fifteen." He shyly hurled a stone at a telegraph-pole to prove that he was not shy.
"My name is Gertie Cowles. I came from Minneapolis. My mamma owns part of the Joralemon Flour Mill.... Are you a nice boy? We just moved here and I don't know anybody. Maybe my mamma will let me play with you if you are a nice boy."
"I jus' soon come play with you. If you play soldiers.... My pa 's the smartest man in Joralemon. He builded Alex Johnson's house. He's got a ten-gauge gun."
"Oh.... My mamma 's a widow."
Carl hung by his arms from the gate-pickets while she breathed, "M-m-m-m-m-m-y!" in admiration at the feat.
"That ain't nothing. I can hang by my knees on a trapeze.... What did you come from Minneapolis for?"
"We're going to live here," she said.
"I went to the Chicago World's Fair with my mamma this summer."
"Aw, you didn't!"
"I did so. And I saw a teeny engine so small it was in a walnut-shell and you had to look at it through a magnifying-glass and it kept on running like anything."
"Huh! that's nothing! Ben Rusk, he went to the World's Fair, too, and he saw a statchue that was bigger 'n our house and all pure gold. You didn't see that."
"I did so! And we got cousins in Chicago and we stayed with them, and Cousin Edgar is a very prominent doctor for eyenear and stummick."
"Aw, Ben Rusk's pa is a doctor, too. And he's got a brother what's going to be a sturgeon."
"I got a brother. He's a year older than me. His name is Ray.... There's lots more people in Minneapolis than there is in Joralemon. There's a hundred thousand people in Minneapolis."
"That ain't nothing. My pa was born in Christiania, in the Old Country, and they's a million million people there."
"Oh, there is not!"
"Honest there is."
"Is there, honest?" Gertie was admiring now.
He looked patronizingly at the red-plush furniture which was being splendidly carried into the great house from Jordan's dray—an old friend of Carl's, which had often carried him banging through town. He condescended:
"Jiminy! You don't know Bennie Rusk nor nobody, do you! I'll bring him and we can play soldiers. And we can make tents out of carpets. Did you ever run through carpets on the line?"
He pointed to the row of rugs and carpets airing beside the carriage-shed.
"No. Is it fun?"
"It's awful scary. But I ain't afraid."
He dashed at the carpets and entered their long narrow tent. To tell the truth, when he stepped from the sunshine into the intense darkness he was slightly afraid. The Ericsons' one carpet made a short passage, but to pass on and on and on through this succession of heavy rug mats, where snakes and poisonous bugs might hide, and where the rough-threaded, gritty under-surface scratched his pushing hands, was fearsome. He emerged with a whoop and encouraged her to try the feat. She peeped inside the first carpet, but withdrew her head, giving homage:
"Oh, it's so dark in there where you went!"
He promptly performed the feat again.
As they wandered back to the gate to watch the furniture-man Gertie tried to regain the superiority due her years by remarking, of a large escritoire which was being juggled into the front door, "My papa bought that desk in Chicago——"
Carl broke in, "I'll bring Bennie Rusk, and me and him 'll teach you to play soldiers."
"My mamma don't think I ought to play games. I've got a lot of dolls, but I'm too old for dolls. I play Authors with mamma, sometimes. And dominoes. Authors is a very nice game."
"But maybe your ma will let you play Indian squaw, and me and Bennie 'll tie you to a stake and scalp you. That won't be rough like soldiers. But I'm going to be a really-truly soldier. I'm going to be a norficer in the army."
"I got a cousin that's an officer in the army," Gertie said grandly, bringing her yellow-ribboned braid round over her shoulder and gently brushing her lips with the end.
"Cross-your-heart, hope-t'-die if you ain't?"
"Honest he's an officer."
"Jiminy crickets! Say, Gertie, could he make me a norficer? Let's go find him. Does he live near here?"
"Oh my, no! He's 'way off in San Francisco."
"Come on. Let's go there. You and me. Gee! I like you! You got a' awful pertty dress."
"'Tain't polite to compliment me to my face. Mamma says——"
"Come on! Let's go! We're going!"
"Oh no. I'd like to," she faltered, "but my mamma wouldn't let me. She don't let me play around with boys, anyway. She's in the house now. And besides, it's 'way far off across the sea, to San Francisco; it's beyond the salt sea where the Mormons live, and they all got seven wives."
"Beyond the sea like Christiania? Ah, 'tain't! It's in America, because Mr. Lamb went there last winter. 'Sides, even if it was across the sea, couldn't we go an' be stow'ways, like the Younger Brothers and all them? And Little Lord Fauntleroy. He went and was a lord, and he wasn't nothing but a' orphing. My ma read me about him, only she don't talk English very good, but we'll go stow'ways," he wound up, triumphantly.
"Gerrrrrrtrrrrrude!" A high-pitched voice from the stoop.
Gertie glowered at a tall, meager woman with a long green-and-white apron over a most respectable black alpaca gown. Her nose was large, her complexion dull, but she carried herself so commandingly as to be almost handsome and very formidable.
"Oh, dear!" Gertie stamped her foot. "Now I got to go in. I never can have any fun. Good-by, Carl——"
He urgently interrupted her tragic farewell. "Say! Gee whillikins! I know what we'll do. You sneak out the back door and I'll meet you, and we'll run away and go seek-our-fortunes and we'll find your cousin——"
"Gerrrtrrrude!" from the stoop.
"Yes, mamma, I'm just coming." To Carl: "'Sides, I'm older 'n you and I'm 'most grown-up, and I don't believe in Santy Claus, and onc't I taught the infant class at St. Chrysostom's Sunday-school when the teacher wasn't there; anyway, I and Miss Bessie did, and I asked them 'most all the questions about the trumpets and pitchers. So I couldn't run away. I'm too old."
"Gerrrtrrrude, come here this instant!"
"Come on. I'll be waiting," Carl demanded.
She was gone. She was being ushered into the House of Mysterious Shutters by Mrs. Cowles. Carl prowled down the street, a fine, new, long stick at his side, like a saber. He rounded the block, and waited back of the Cowles carriage-shed, doing sentry-go and planning the number of parrots and pieces of eight he would bring back from San Francisco. Then his father and mother would be sorry they'd talked about him in their Norwegian!
"Carl!" Gertie was running around the corner of the carriage-shed. "Oh, Carl, I had to come out and see you again, but I can't go seek-our-fortunes with you, 'cause they've got the piano moved in now and I got to practise, else I'll grow up just an ignorant common person, and, besides, there's going to be tea-biscuits and honey for supper. I saw the honey."
He smartly swung his saber to his shoulder, ordering, "Come on!"
Gertie edged forward, perplexedly sucking a finger-joint, and followed him along Lake Street toward open country. They took to the Minnesota & Dakota railroad track, a natural footpath in a land where the trains were few and not fast, as was the condition of the single-tracked M. & D. of 1893. In a worried manner Carl inquired whether San Francisco was northwest or southeast—the directions in which ran all self-respecting railroads. Gertie blandly declared that it lay to the northwest; and northwest they started—toward the swamps and the first forests of the Big Woods.
He had wonderlands to show her along the track. To him every detail was of scientific importance. He knew intimately the topography of the fields beside the track; in which corner of Tubbs's pasture, between the track and the lake, the scraggly wild clover grew, and down what part of the gravel-bank it was most exciting to roll. As far along the track as the Arch, each railroad tie (or sleeper) had for him a personality: the fat, white tie, which oozed at the end into an awkward knob, he had always hated because it resembled a flattened grub; a new tamarack tie with a sliver of fresh bark still on it, recently put in by the section gang, was an entertaining stranger; and he particularly introduced Gertie to his favorite, a wine-colored tie which always smiled.
Gertie, though noblesse oblige compelled her to be gracious to the imprisoned ties writhing under the steel rails, did not really show much enthusiasm till he led her to the justly celebrated Arch. Even then she boasted of Minnehaha Falls and Fort Snelling and Lake Calhoun; but, upon his grieved solicitation, declared that, after all, the Twin Cities had nothing to compare with the Arch—a sandstone tunnel full twenty feet high, miraculously boring through the railroad embankment, and faced with great stones which you could descend by lowering yourself from stone to stone. Through the Arch ran the creek, with rare minnows in its pools, while important paths led from the creek to a wilderness of hazelnut-bushes. He taught her to tear the drying husks from the nuts and crack the nuts with stones. At his request Gertie produced two pins from unexpected parts of her small frilly dress. He found a piece of string, and they fished for perch in the creek. As they had no bait whatever, their success was not large.
A flock of ducks flew low above them, seeking a pond for the night.
"Jiminy!" Carl cried, "it's getting late. We got to hurry. It's awful far to San Francisco and—I don't know—gee! where'll we sleep to-night?"
"We hadn't ought to go on, had we?"
"Yes! Come on!"
From the creek they tramped nearly two miles, through the dark gravel-banks of the railroad cut, across the high trestle over Joralemon River where Gertie had to be coaxed from stringer to stringer. They stopped only when a gopher in a clearing demanded attention. Gertie finally forgot the superiority of age when she saw Carl whistle the quivering gopher-cry, while the gopher sat as though hypnotized on his pile of fresh black earth. Carl stalked him. As always happened, the gopher popped into his hole just before Carl reached him; but it certainly did seem that he had nearly been caught; and Gertie was jumping with excitement when Carl returned, strutting, cocking his saber-stick over his shoulder.
Gertie was tired. She, the Minneapolis girl, had not been much awed by the railroad ties nor the Arch, but now she tramped proudly beside the man who could catch gophers, till Carl inquired:
"Are you gettin' awful hungry? It's a'most supper-time."
"Yes, I am hungry," trustingly.
"I'm going to go and swipe some 'taters. I guess maybe there's a farm-house over there. I see a chimbly beyond the slough. You stay here."
"I dassn't stay alone. Oh, I better go home. I'm scared."
"Come on. I won't let nothing hurt you."
They circled a swamp surrounded by woods, Carl's left arm about her, his right clutching the saber. Though the sunset was magnificent and a gay company of blackbirds swayed on the reeds of the slough, dusk was sneaking out from the underbrush that blurred the forest floor, and Gertie caught the panic fear. She wished to go home at once. She saw darkness reaching for them. Her mother would unquestionably whip her for staying out so late. She discovered a mud-smear on the side of her skirt, and a shoe-button was gone. She was cold. Finally, if she missed supper at home she would get no tea-biscuits and honey. Gertie's polite little stomach knew its rights and insisted upon them.
"I wish I hadn't come!" she lamented. "I wish I hadn't. Do you s'pose mamma will be dreadfully angry? Won't you 'splain to her? You will, won't you?"
It was Carl's duty, as officer commanding, to watch the blackened stumps that sprang from the underbrush. And there was Something, 'way over in the woods, beyond the trees horribly gashed to whiteness by lightning. Perhaps the Something hadn't moved; perhaps it was a stump——
But he answered her loudly, so that lurking robbers might overhear: "I know a great big man over there, and he's a friend of mine; he's a brakie on the M. & D., and he lets me ride in the caboose any time I want to, and he's right behind us. (I was just making b'lieve, Gertie; I'll 'splain everything to your mother.) He's bigger 'n anybody!" More conversationally: "Aw, Jiminy! Gertie, don't cry! Please don't. I'll take care of you. And if you ain't going to have any supper we'll swipe some 'taters and roast 'em." He gulped. He hated to give up, to return to woodshed and chicken-yard, but he conceded: "I guess maybe we hadn't better go seek-our-fortunes no more to——"
A long wail tore through the air. The children shrieked together and fled, stumbling in dry bog, weeping in terror. Carl's backbone was all one prickling bar of ice. But he waved his stick fiercely, and, because he had to care for her, was calm enough to realize that the wail must have been the cry of the bittern.
"It wasn't nothing but a bird, Gertie; it can't hurt us. Heard 'em lots of times."
Nevertheless, he was still trembling when they reached the edge of a farm-yard clearing beyond the swamp. It was gray-dark. They could see only the mass of a barn and a farmer's cabin, both new to Carl. Holding her hand, he whispered:
"They must be some 'taters or 'beggies in the barn. I'll sneak in and see. You stand here by the corn-crib and work out some ears between the bars. See—like this."
He left her. The sound of her frightened snivel aged him. He tiptoed to the barn door, eying a light in the farm-house. He reached far up to the latch of the broad door and pulled out the wooden pin. The latch slipped noisily from its staple. The door opened with a groaning creek and banged against the barn.
Paralyzed, hearing all the silence of the wild clearing, he waited. There was a step in the house. The door opened. A huge farmer, tousle-haired, black-bearded, held up a lamp and peered out. It was the Black Dutchman.
The Black Dutchman was a living legend. He often got drunk and rode past Carl's home at night, lashing his horses and cursing in German. He had once thrashed the school-teacher for whipping his son. He had no friends.
"Oh dear, oh dear, I wisht I was home!" sobbed Carl; but he started to run to Gertie's protection.
The Black Dutchman set down the lamp. "Wer ist da? I see you! Damnation!" he roared, and lumbered out, seizing a pitchfork from the manure-pile.
Carl galloped up to Gertie, panting, "He's after us!" and dragged her into the hazel-bushes beyond the corn-crib. As his country-bred feet found and followed a path toward deeper woods, he heard the Black Dutchman beating the bushes with his pitchfork, shouting:
"Hiding! I know vere you are! Hah!"
Carl jerked his companion forward till he lost the path. There was no light. They could only crawl on through the bushes, whose malicious fingers stung Gertie's face and plucked at her proud frills. He lifted her over fallen trees, freed her from branches, and all the time, between his own sobs, he encouraged her and tried to pretend that their incredible plight was not the end of the world, whimpering:
"We're a'most on the road now, Gertie; honest we are. I can't hear him now. I ain't afraid of him—he wouldn't dast hurt us or my pa would fix him."
"Oh! I hear him! He's coming! Oh, please save me, Carl!"
"Gee! run fast!... Aw, I don't hear him. I ain't afraid of him!"
They burst out on a grassy woodland road and lay down, panting. They could see a strip of stars overhead; and the world was dark, silent, in the inscrutable night of autumn. Carl said nothing. He tried to make out where they were—where this road would take them. It might run deeper into the woods, which he did not know as he did the Arch environs; and he had so twisted through the brush that he could not tell in what direction lay either the main wagon-road or the M. & D. track.
He lifted her up, and they plodded hand in hand till she said:
"I'm awful tired. It's awful cold. My feet hurt awfully. Carl dear, oh, pleassssse take me home now. I want my mamma. Maybe she won't whip me now. It's so dark and—ohhhhhh——" She muttered, incoherently: "There! By the road! He's waiting for us!" She sank down, her arm over her face, groaning, "Don't hurt me!"
Carl straddled before her, on guard. There was a distorted mass crouched by the road just ahead. He tingled with the chill of fear, down through his thighs. He had lost his stick-saber, but he bent, felt for, and found another stick, and piped to the shadowy watcher:
"I ain't af-f-fraid of you! You gwan away from here!"
The watcher did not answer.
"I know who you are!" Bellowing with fear, Carl ran forward, furiously waving his stick and clamoring: "You better not touch me!" The stick came down with a silly, flat clack upon the watcher—a roadside boulder. "It's just a rock, Gertie! Jiminy, I'm glad! It's just a rock!... Aw, I knew it was a rock all the time! Ben Rusk gets scared every time he sees a stump in the woods, and he always thinks it's a robber."
Chattily, Carl went back, lifted her again, endured her kissing his cheek, and they started on.
"I'm so cold," Gertie moaned from time to time, till he offered:
"I'll try and build a fire. Maybe we better camp. I got a match what I swiped from the kitchen. Maybe I can make a fire, so we better camp."
"I don't want to camp. I want to go home."
"I don't know where we are, I told you."
"Can you make a regular camp-fire? Like Indians?"
"Let's.... But I rather go home."
"You ain't scared now. Are you, Gertie? Gee! you're a' awful brave girl!"
"No, but I'm cold and I wisht we had some tea-biscuits——"
Ever too complacent was Miss Gertrude Cowles, the Good Girl in whatever group she joined; but she seemed to trust in Carl's heroism, and as she murmured of a certain chilliness she seemed to take it for granted that he would immediately bring her some warmth. Carl had never heard of the romantic males who, in fiction, so frequently offer their coats to ladies fair but chill; yet he stripped off his jacket and wrapped it about her, while his gingham-clad shoulders twitched with cold.
"I can hear a crick, 'way, 'way over there. Le's camp by it," he decided.
They scrambled through the brush, Carl leading her and feeling the way. He found a patch of long grass beside the creek; with only his tremulous hands for eyes he gathered leaves, twigs, and dead branches, and piled them together in a pyramid, as he had been taught to do by the older woods-faring boys.
It was still; no wind; but Carl, who had gobbled up every word he had heard about deer-hunting in the north woods, got a great deal of interesting fear out of dreading what might happen if his one match did not light. He made Gertie kneel beside him with the jacket outspread, and he hesitated several times before he scratched the match. It flared up; the leaves caught; the pile of twigs was instantly aflame.
He wept, "Jiminy, if it hadn't lighted!..." By and by he announced, loudly, "I wasn't afraid," to convince himself, and sat up, throwing twigs on the fire grandly.
Gertie, who didn't really appreciate heroism, sighed, "I'm hungry and——"
"My second-grade teacher told us a story how they was a' arctic explorer and he was out in a blizzard——"
"——and I wish we had some tea-biscuits," concluded Gertie, companionably but firmly.
"I'll go pick some hazelnuts."
He left her feeding the flame. As he crept away, the fire behind him, he was dreadfully frightened, now that he had no one to protect. A few yards from the fire he stopped in terror. He clutched a branch so tightly that it creased his palm. Two hundred yards away, across the creek, was the small square of a lighted window hovering detached in the darkness.
For a panic-filled second Carl was sure that it must be the Black Dutchman's window. His tired child-mind whined. But there was no creek near the Black Dutchman's. Though he did not want to venture up to the unknown light, he growled, "I will if I want to!" and limped forward.
He had to cross the creek, the strange creek whose stepping-stones he did not know. Shivering, hesitant, he stripped off his shoes and stockings and dabbled the edge of the water with reluctant toes, to see if it was cold. It was.
"Dog-gone!" he swore, mightily. He plunged in, waded across.
He found a rock and held it ready to throw at the dog that was certain to come snapping at him as he tiptoed through the clearing. His wet legs smarted with cold. The fact that he was trespassing made him feel more forlornly lost than ever. But he stumbled up to the one-room shack that was now shaping itself against the sky. It was a house that, he believed, he had never seen before. When he reached it he stood for fully a minute, afraid to move. But from across the creek whimpered Gertie's call:
"Carl, oh, Carl, where are you?"
He had to hurry. He crept along the side of the shack to the window. It was too high in the wall for him to peer through. He felt for something to stand upon, and found a short board, which he wedged against the side of the shack.
He looked through the dusty window for a second. He sprang from the board.
Alone in the shack was the one person about Joralemon more feared, more fabulous than the Black Dutchman—"Bone" Stillman, the man who didn't believe in God.
Bone Stillman read Robert G. Ingersoll, and said what he thought. Otherwise he was not dangerous to the public peace; a lone old bachelor farmer. It was said that he had been a sailor or a policeman, a college professor or a priest, a forger or an embezzler. Nothing positive was known except that three years ago he had appeared and bought this farm. He was a grizzled man of fifty-five, with a long, tobacco-stained, gray mustache and an open-necked blue-flannel shirt. To Carl, beside the shack, Bone Stillman was all that was demoniac.
Gertie was calling again. Carl climbed upon his board and resumed his inspection, seeking a course of action.
The one-room shack was lined with tar-paper, on which were pinned lithographs of Robert G. Ingersoll, Karl Marx, and Napoleon. Under a gun-rack made of deer antlers was a cupboard half filled with dingy books, shotgun shells, and fishing tackle. Bone was reading by a pine table still littered with supper-dishes. Before him lay a clean-limbed English setter. The dog was asleep. In the shack was absolute stillness and loneliness intimidating.
While Carl watched, Bone dropped his book and said, "Here, Bob, what d'you think of single-tax, heh?"
Carl gazed apprehensively.... No one but Bone was in the shack.... It was said that the devil himself sometimes visited here.... On Carl was the chill of a nightmare.
The dog raised his head, stirred, blinked, pounded his tail on the floor, and rose, a gentlemanly, affable chap, to lay his muzzle on Bone's knee while the solitary droned:
"This fellow says in this book here that the city 's the natural place to live—aboriginal tribes prove man 's naturally gregarious. What d'you think about it, heh, Bob?... Bum country, this is. No thinking. What in the name of the seven saintly sisters did I ever want to be a farmer for, heh?
"Let's skedaddle, Bob.
"I ain't an atheist. I'm an agnostic.
"Lonely, Bob? Go over and talk to his whiskers, Karl Marx. He's liberal. He don't care what you say. He—— Oh, shut up! You're damn poor company. Say something!"
Carl, still motionless, was the more agonized because there was no sound from Gertie, not even a sobbing call. Anything might have happened to her. While he was coaxing himself to knock on the pane, Stillman puttered about the shack, petting the dog, filling his pipe. He passed out of Carl's range of vision toward the side of the room in which was the window.
A huge hand jerked the window open and caught Carl by the hair. Two wild faces stared at each other, six inches apart.
"I saw you. Came here to plague me!" roared Bone Stillman.
"Oh, mister, oh please, mister, I wasn't. Me and Gertie is lost in the woods—we——Ouch! Oh, please lemme go!"
"Why, you're just a brat! Come here."
The lean arm of Bone Stillman dragged Carl through the window by the slack of his gingham waist.
"Lost, heh? Where's t'other one—Gertie, was it?"
"She's over in the woods."
"Poor little tyke! Wait 'll I light my lantern."
The swinging lantern made friendly ever-changing circles of light, and Carl no longer feared the dangerous territory of the yard. Riding pick-a-back on Bone Stillman, he looked down contentedly on the dog's deferential tail beside them. They found Gertie asleep by the fire. She scarcely awoke as Stillman picked her up and carried her back to his shack. She nestled her downy hair beneath his chin and closed her eyes.
Stillman said, cheerily, as he ushered them into his mansion: "I'll hitch up and take you back to town. You young tropical tramps! First you better have a bite to eat, though. What do kids eat, bub?"
The dog was nuzzling Carl's hand, and Carl had almost forgotten his fear that the devil might appear. He was flatteringly friendly in his answer: "Porritch and meat and potatoes—only I don't like potatoes, and—pie!"
"'Fraid I haven't any pie, but how'd some bacon and eggs go?" As he stoked up his cannon-ball stove and sliced the bacon, Stillman continued to the children, who were shyly perched on the buffalo-robe cover of his bed, "Were you scared in the woods?"
"Don't ever for——Da——Blast that egg! Don't forget this, son: nothing outside of you can ever hurt you. It can chew up your toes, but it can't reach you. Nobody but you can hurt you. Let me try to make that clear, old man, if I can....
"There's your fodder. Draw up and set to. Pretty sleepy, are you? I'll tell you a story. J' like to hear about how Napoleon smashed the theory of divine rule, or about how me and Charlie Weems explored Tiburon? Well——"
Though Carl afterward remembered not one word of what Bone Stillman said, it is possible that the outcast's treatment of him as a grown-up friend was one of the most powerful of the intangible influences which were to push him toward the great world outside of Joralemon. The school-bound child—taught by young ladies that the worst immorality was whispering in school; the chief virtue, a dull quietude—was here first given a reasonable basis for supposing that he was not always to be a back-yard boy.
The man in the flannel shirt, who chewed tobacco, who wrenched infinitives apart and thrust profane words between, was for fifteen minutes Carl's Froebel and Montessori.
Carl's recollection of listening to Bone blurs into one of being somewhere in the back of a wagon beside Gertie, wrapped in buffalo robes, and of being awakened by the stopping of the wagon when Bone called to a band of men with lanterns who were searching for the missing Gertie. Apparently the next second he was being lifted out before his home, and his aproned mother was kissing him and sobbing, "Oh, my boy!" He snuggled his head on her shoulder and said:
"I'm cold. But I'm going to San Francisco."
Carl Ericson, grown to sixteen and long trousers, trimmed the arc-lights for the Joralemon Power and Lighting Company, after school; then at Eddie Klemm's billiard-parlor he won two games of Kelly pool, smoked a cigarette of flake tobacco and wheat-straw paper, and "chipped in" five cents toward a can of beer.
A slender Carl, hesitating in speech, but with plenty to say; rangy as a setter pup, silken-haired; his Scandinavian cheeks like petals at an age when his companions' faces were like maps of the moon; stubborn and healthy; wearing a celluloid collar and a plain black four-in-hand; a blue-eyed, undistinguished, awkward, busy proletarian of sixteen, to whom evening clothes and poetry did not exist, but who quivered with inarticulate determinations to see Minneapolis, or even Chicago. To him it was sheer romance to parade through town with a tin haversack of carbons for the arc-lights, familiarly lowering the high-hung mysterious lamps, while his plodding acquaintances "clerked" in stores on Saturdays, or tended furnaces. Sometimes he donned the virile—and noisy—uniform of an electrician: army gauntlets, a coil of wire, pole-climbers strapped to his legs. Crunching his steel spurs into the crisp pine wood of the lighting-poles, he carelessly ascended to the place of humming wires and red cross-bars and green-glass insulators, while crowds of two and three small boys stared in awe from below. At such moments Carl did not envy the aristocratic leisure of his high-school classmate, Fatty Ben Rusk, who, as son of the leading doctor, did not work, but stayed home and read library books.
Carl's own home was not adapted to the enchantments of a boy's reading. Perfectly comfortable it was, and clean with the hard cleanness that keeps oilcloth looking perpetually unused, but it was so airlessly respectable that it doubled Carl's natural restlessness. It had been old Oscar Ericson's labor of love, but the carpenter loved shininess more than space and leisure. His model for a house would have been a pine dry-goods box grained in imitation of oak. Oscar Ericson radiated intolerance and a belief in unimaginative, unresting labor. Every evening, collarless and carpet-slippered, ruffling his broom-colored hair or stroking his large, long chin, while his shirt-tab moved ceaselessly in time to his breathing, he read a Norwegian paper. Carl's mother darned woolen socks and thought about milk-pans and the neighbors and breakfast. The creak of rockers filled the unventilated, oilcloth-floored sitting-room. The sound was as unchanging as the sacred positions of the crayon enlargement of Mrs. Ericson's father, the green-glass top-hat for matches, or the violent ingrain rug with its dog's-head pattern.
Carl's own room contained only plaster walls, a narrow wooden bed, a bureau, a kitchen chair. Fifteen minutes in this irreproachable home sent Carl off to Eddie Klemm's billiard-parlor, which was not irreproachable.
He rather disliked the bitterness of beer and the acrid specks of cigarette tobacco that stuck to his lips, but the "bunch at Eddie's" were among the few people in Joralemon who were conscious of life. Eddie's establishment was a long, white-plastered room with a pressed-steel ceiling and an unswept floor. On the walls were billiard-table-makers' calendars and a collection of cigarette-premium chromos portraying bathing girls. The girls were of lithographic complexions, almost too perfect of feature, and their lips were more than ruby. Carl admired them.
* * * * *
A September afternoon. The sixteen-year-old Carl was tipped back in a chair at Eddie Klemm's, one foot on a rung, while he discussed village scandals and told outrageous stories with Eddie Klemm, a brisk money-maker and vulgarian aged twenty-three, who wore a "fancy vest" and celluloid buttons on his lapels. Ben Rusk hesitatingly poked his head through the door.
Eddie Klemm called, with business-like cordiality: "H'lo, Fatty! Come in. How's your good health? Haven't reformed, have you? Going to join us rough-necks? Come on; I'll teach you to play pool. Won't cost you a cent."
"No, I guess I hadn't better. I was just looking for Carl."
"Well, well, Fatty, ain't we ree-fined! Why do we guess we hadn't to probably maybe oughtn't to had better?"
"Oh, I don't know. Some day I'll learn, I guess," sighed Fatty Ben Rusk, who knew perfectly that with a doctor father, a religious mother, and an effeminate taste for reading he could never be a town sport.
"Hey! watch out!" shrieked Eddie.
"Wh-what's the matter?" gasped Fatty.
"The floor 's falling on you!"
"Th—th——Aw, say, you're kidding me," said Fatty, weakly, with a propitiating smile.
"Don't worry, son; you're the third guy to-day that I've caught on that! Stick around, son, and sit in any time, and I'll learn you some pool. You got just the right build for a champ player. Have a cigarette?"
The social amenities whereby Joralemon prepares her youth for the graces of life having been recognized, Fatty Rusk hitched a chair beside Carl, and muttered:
"Say, Carl, here's what I wanted to tell you: I was just up to the Cowleses' to take back a French grammar I borrowed to look at——Maybe that ain't a hard-looking language! What d'you think? Mrs. Cowles told me Gertie is expected back to-morrow."
"Gee whiz! I thought she was going to stay in New York for two years! And she's only been gone six months."
"I guess Mrs. Cowles is kind of lonely without her," Ben mooned.
"So now you'll be all nice and in love with Gertie again, heh? It certainly gets me why you want to fall in love, Fatty, when you could go hunting."
"If you'd read about King Arthur and Galahad and all them instead of reading the Scientific American, and about these fool horseless carriages and stuff——There never will be any practical use for horseless carriages, anyway."
"There will——" growled Carl.
"My mother says she don't believe the Lord ever intended us to ride without horses, or what did He give us horses for? And the things always get stuck in the mud and you have to walk home—mother was reading that in a newspaper, just the other day."
"Son, let me tell you, I'll own a horseless carriage some day, and I bet I go an average of twenty miles an hour with it, maybe forty."
"Oh, rats! But I was saying, if you'd read some library books you'd know about love. Why, what 'd God put love in the world for——"
"Say, will you quit explaining to me about what God did things for?"
"Ouch! Quit! Awwww, quit, Carl.... Say, listen; here's what I wanted to tell you: How if you and me and Adelaide Benner and some of us went down to the depot to meet Gertie, to-morrow? She comes in on the twelve-forty-seven."
"Well, all right. Say, Bennie, you don't want to be worried when I kid you about being in love with Gertie. I don't think I'll ever get married. But it's all right for you."
* * * * *
Saturday morning was so cool, so radiant, that Carl awakened early to a conviction that, no matter how important meeting Gertie might be in the cosmic scheme, he was going hunting. He was down-stairs by five. He fried two eggs, called Dollar Ingersoll, his dog—son of Robert Ingersoll Stillman, gentleman dog—then, in canvas hunting-coat and slouch-hat, tramped out of town southward, where the woods ended in prairie. Gertie's arrival was forgotten.
It was a gipsy day. The sun rolled splendidly through the dry air, over miles of wheat stubble, whose gray-yellow prickles were transmuted by distance into tawny velvet, seeming only the more spacious because of the straight, thin lines of barbed-wire fences lined with goldenrod, and solitary houses in willow groves. The dips and curves of the rolling plain drew him on; the distances satisfied his eyes. A pleasant hum of insects filled the land's wide serenity with hidden life.
Carl left a trail of happy, monotonous whistling behind him all day, as his dog followed the winding trail of prairie-chickens, as a covey of chickens rose with booming wings and he swung his shotgun for a bead. He stopped by prairie-sloughs or bright-green bogs to watch for a duck. He hailed as equals the occasional groups of hunters in two-seated buggies, quartering the fields after circling dogs. He lunched contentedly on sandwiches of cold lamb, and lay with his arms under his head, gazing at a steeple fully ten miles away.
By six of the afternoon he had seven prairie-chickens tucked inside the long pocket that lined the tail of his coat, and he headed for home, superior to miles, his quiet eyes missing none of the purple asters and goldenrod.
As he began to think he felt a bit guilty. The flowers suggested Gertie. He gathered a large bunch, poking stalks of aster among the goldenrod, examining the result at arm's-length. Yet when he stopped at the Rusks' in town, to bid Bennie take the rustic bouquet to Gertie, he replied to reproaches:
"What you making all the fuss about my not being there to meet her for? She got here all right, didn't she? What j' expect me to do? Kiss her? You ought to known it was too good a day for hunting to miss.... How's Gert? Have a good time in New York?"
Carl himself took the flowers to her, however, and was so shyly attentive to her account of New York that he scarcely stopped to speak to the Cowleses' "hired girl," who was his second cousin.... Mrs. Cowles overheard him shout, "Hello, Lena! How's it going?" to the hired girl with cousinly ease. Mrs. Cowles seemed chilly. Carl wondered why.
* * * * *
From month to month of his junior year in high school Carl grew more discontented. He let the lines of his Cicero fade into a gray blur that confounded Cicero's blatant virtue and Cataline's treachery, while he pictured himself tramping with snow-shoes and a mackinaw coat into the snowy solemnities of the northern Minnesota tamarack swamps. Much of his discontent was caused by his learned preceptors. The teachers for this year were almost perfectly calculated to make any lad of the slightest independence hate culture for the rest of his life. With the earnestness and industry usually ascribed to the devil, "Prof" Sybrant E. Larsen (B. A. Platonis), Miss McDonald, and Miss Muzzy kept up ninety-five per cent. discipline, and seven per cent. instruction in anything in the least worth while.
Miss Muzzy was sarcastic, and proud of it. She was sarcastic to Carl when he gruffly asked why he couldn't study French instead of "all this Latin stuff." If there be any virtue in the study of Latin (and we have all forgotten all our Latin except the fact that "suburb" means "under the city"—i. e., a subway), Carl was blinded to it for ever. Miss Muzzy wore eye-glasses and had no bosom. Carl's father used to say approvingly, "Dat Miss Muzzy don't stand for no nonsense," and Mrs. Dr. Rusk often had her for dinner.... Miss McDonald, fat and slow-spoken and kind, prone to use the word "dearie," to read Longfellow, and to have buttons off her shirt-waists, used on Carl a feminine weapon more unfair than the robust sarcasm of Miss Muzzy. For after irritating a self-respecting boy into rudeness by pawing his soul with damp, puffy hands, she would weep. She was a kind, honest, and reverent bovine. Carl sat under her supervision in the junior room, with its hardwood and blackboards and plaster, high windows and portraits of Washington and a President who was either Madison or Monroe (no one ever remembered which). He hated the eternal school smell of drinking-water pails and chalk and slates and varnish; he loathed the blackboard erasers, white with crayon-dust; he found inspiration only in the laboratory where "Prof" Larsen mistaught physics and rebuked questions about the useless part of chemistry—that is, the part that wasn't in their text-books.
As for literature, Ben Rusk persuaded him to try Captain Marryat and Conan Doyle. Carl met Sherlock Holmes in a paper-bound book, during a wait for flocks of mallards on the duck-pass, which was a little temple of silver birches bare with November. He crouched down in his canvas coat and rubber boots, gun across knees, and read for an hour without moving. As he tramped home, into a vast Minnesota sunset like a furnace of fantastic coals, past the garnet-tinged ice of lakes, he kept his gun cocked and under his elbow, ready for the royal robber who was dogging the personage of Baker Street.
He hunted much; distinguished himself in geometry and chemistry; nearly flunked in Cicero and English; learned to play an extraordinarily steady game of bottle pool at Eddie Klemm's.
And always Gertie Cowles, gently hesitant toward Ben Rusk's affection, kept asking Carl why he didn't come to see her oftener, and play tiddledywinks.
On the Friday morning before Christmas vacation, Carl and Ben Rusk were cleaning up the chemical laboratory, its pine experiment-bench and iron sink and rough floor. Bennie worried a rag in the sink with the resigned manner of a man who, having sailed with purple banners the sunset sea of tragedy, goes bravely on with a life gray and weary.
The town was excited. Gertie Cowles was giving a party, and she had withdrawn her invitation to Eddie Klemm. Gertie was staying away from high school, gracefully recovering from a cold. For two weeks the junior and senior classes had been furtively exhibiting her holly-decked cards of invitation. Eddie had been included, but after his quarrel with Howard Griffin, a Plato College freshman who was spending the vacation with Ray Cowles, it had been explained to Eddie that perhaps he would be more comfortable not to come to the party.
Gertie's brother, Murray, or "Ray," was the town hero. He had captained the high-school football team. He was tall and very black-haired, and he "jollied" the girls. It was said that twenty girls in Joralemon and Wakamin, and a "grass widow" in St. Hilary, wrote to him. He was now a freshman in Plato College, Plato, Minnesota. He had brought home with him his classmate, Howard Griffin, whose people lived in South Dakota and were said to be wealthy. Griffin had been very haughty to Eddie Klemm, when introduced to that brisk young man at the billiard-parlor, and now, the town eagerly learned, Eddie had been rejected of society.
In the laboratory Carl was growling: "Well, say, Fatty, if it was right for them to throw Eddie out, where do I come in? His dad 's a barber, and mine 's a carpenter, and that's just as bad. Or how about you? I was reading that docs used to be just barbers."
"Aw, thunder!" said Ben Rusk, the doctor's scion, uncomfortably, "you're just arguing. I don't believe that about doctors being barbers. Don't it tell about doctors 'way back in the Bible? Why, of course! Luke was a physician! 'Sides, it ain't a question of Eddie's being a barber's son. I sh'd think you'd realize that Gertie isn't well. She wouldn't want to have to entertain both Eddie and Griffin, and Griffin 's her guest; and besides——"
"You're getting all tangled up. If I was to let you go on you'd trip over a long word and bust your dome. Come on. We've done enough cleaning. Le's hike. Come on up to the house and help me on my bobs. I got a new scheme for pivoting the back sled.... You just wait till to-night. I'm going to tell Gertie and Mister Howard Griffin just what I think of them for being such two-bit snobs. And your future ma-in-law. Gee! I'm glad I don't have to be in love with anybody, and become a snob! Come on."
Out of this wholesome, democratic, and stuffy village life Carl suddenly stepped into the great world. A motor-car, the first he had ever seen, was drawn up before the Hennepin House.
He stopped. His china-blue eyes widened. His shoulders shot forward to a rigid stoop of astonishment. His mouth opened. He gasped as they ran to join the gathering crowd.
"A horseless carriage! Do you get that? There's one here!" He touched the bonnet of the two-cylinder 1901 car, and worshiped. "Under there—the engine! And there's where you steer.... I will own one!... Gee! you're right, Fatty; I believe I will go to college. And then I'll study mechanical engineering."
"Thought you said you were going to try and go to Annapolis and be a sailor."
"No. Rats! I'm going to own a horseless carriage, and I'm going to tour every state in the Union.... Think of seeing mountains! And the ocean! And going twenty miles an hour, like a train!"
While Carl prepared for Gertie Cowles's party by pressing his trousers with his mother's flat-iron, while he blacked his shoes and took his weekly sponge-bath, he was perturbed by partisanship with Eddie Klemm, and a longing for the world of motors, and some anxiety as to how he could dance at the party when he could not dance.
He clumped up the new stone steps of the Cowles house carelessly, not unusually shy, ready to tell Gertie what he thought of her treatment of Eddie. Then the front door opened and an agonized Carl was smothered in politeness. His second cousin, Lena, the Cowleses' "hired girl," was opening the door, stiff and uncomfortable in a cap, a black dress, and a small frilly apron that dangled on her boniness like a lace kerchief pinned on a broom-handle. Murray Cowles rushed up. He was in evening clothes!
Behind Murray, Mrs. Cowles greeted Carl with thawed majesty: "We are so glad to have you, Carl. Won't you take your things off in the room at the head of the stairs?"
An affable introduction to Howard Griffin (also in evening clothes) was poured on Carl like soothing balm. Said Griffin: "Mighty glad to meet you, Ericson. Ray told me you'd make a ripping sprinter. The captain of the track team 'll be on the lookout for you when you get to Plato. Course you're going to go there. The U. of Minn. is too big.... You'll do something for old Plato. Wish I could. But all I can do is warble like a darn' dicky-bird. Have a cigarette?... They're just starting to dance. Come on, old man. Come on, Ray."
Carl was drawn down-stairs and instantly precipitated into a dance regarding which he was sure only that it was either a waltz, a two-step, or something else. It filled with glamour the Cowles library—the only parlor in Joralemon that was called a library, and the only one with a fireplace or a polished hardwood floor. Grandeur was in the red lambrequins over the doors and windows; the bead portiere; a hand-painted coal-scuttle; small, round paintings of flowers set in black velvet; an enormous black-walnut bookcase with fully a hundred volumes; and the two lamps of green-mottled shades and wrought-iron frames, set on pyrographed leather skins brought from New York by Gertie. The light was courtly on the polished floor. Adelaide Benner—a new Adelaide, in chiffon over yellow satin, and patent-leather slippers—grinned at him and ruthlessly towed him into the tide of dancers. In the spell of society no one seemed to remember Eddie Klemm. Adelaide did not mention the incident.
Carl found himself bumping into others, continually apologizing to Adelaide and the rest—and not caring. For he saw a vision! Each time he turned toward the south end of the room he beheld Gertie Cowles glorified.
She was out of ankle-length dresses! She looked her impressive eighteen, in a foaming long white mull that showed her soft throat. A red rose was in her brown hair. She reclined in a big chair of leather and oak and smiled her gentlest, especially when Carl bobbed his head to her.
He had always taken her as a matter of course; she had no age, no sex, no wonder. That afternoon she had been a negligible bit of Joralemon, to be accused of snobbery toward Eddie Klemm, and always to be watched suspiciously lest she "spring some New York airs on us."... Gertie had craftily seemed unchanged after her New York enlightenment till now—here she was, suddenly grown-up and beautiful, haloed with a peculiar magic, which distinguished her from all the rest of the world.
"She's the one that would ride in that horseless carriage when I got it!" Carl exulted. "That must be a train, that thing she's got on."
After the dance he disposed of Adelaide Benner as though she were only a sister. He hung over the back of Gertie's chair and urged: "I was awful sorry to hear you were sick.... Say, you look wonderful, to-night."
"I'm so glad you could come to my party. Oh, I must speak to you about——Do you suppose you would ever get very, very angry at poor me? Me so bad sometimes."
He cut an awkward little caper to show his aplomb, and assured her, "I guess probably I'll kill you some time, all right."
"No, listen, Carl; I'm dreadfully serious. I hope you didn't go and get dreadfully angry at me about Eddie Klemm. I know Eddie 's good friends with you. And I did want to have him come to my party. But you see it was this way: Mr. Griffin is our guest (he likes you a lot, Carl. Isn't he a dandy fellow? I guess Adelaide and Hazel 're just crazy about him. I think he's just as swell as the men in New York). Eddie and he didn't get along very well together. It isn't anybody's fault, I don't guess. I thought Eddie would be lots happier if he didn't come, don't you see?"
"Oh no, of course; oh yes, I see. Sure. I can see how——Say, Gertie, I never did know you could look so grown-up. I suppose now you'll never play with me."
"I want you to be a good friend of mine always. We always have been awfully good friends, haven't we?"
"Yes. Do you remember how we ran away?"
"And how the Black Dutchman chassssed us!" Her sweet and complacent voice was so cheerful that he lost his awe of her new magic and chortled:
"And how we used to play pum-pum-pull-away."
She delicately leaned her cheek on a finger-tip and sighed: "Yes, I wonder if we shall ever be so happy as when we were young.... I don't believe you care to play with me so much now."
"Oh, gee! Gertie! Like to——!" The shyness was on him again. "Say, are you feeling better now? You're all over being sick?"
"Almost, now. I'll be back in school right after vacation."
"It's you that don't want to play, I guess.... I can't get over that long white dress. It makes you look so—oh, you know, so, uh——"
"They're going to dance again. I wish I felt able to dance."
"Let me sit and talk to you, Gertie, instead of dancing."
"I suppose you're dreadfully bored, though, when you could be down at the billiard-parlor?"
"Yes, I could! Not! Eddie Klemm and his fancy vest wouldn't have much chance, alongside of Griffin in his dress-suit! Course I don't want to knock Eddie. Him and me are pretty good side-kicks——"
"Oh no; I understand. It's just that people have to go with their own class, don't you think?"
"Oh Yes. Sure. I do think so, myself." Carl said it with a spurious society manner. In Gertie's aristocratic presence he desired to keep aloof from all vulgar persons.
"Of course, I think we ought to make allowances for Eddie's father, Carl, but then——"
She sighed with the responsibilities of noblesse oblige; and Carl gravely sighed with her.
He brought a stool and sat at her feet. Immediately he was afraid that every one was watching him. Ray Cowles bawled to them, as he passed in the waltz, "Watch out for that Carl, Gert. He's a regular badix."
Carl's scalp tickled, but he tried to be very offhand in remarking: "You must have gotten that dress in New York, didn't you? Why haven't you ever told me about New York? You've hardly told me anything at all."
"Well, I like that! And you never been near me to give me a chance!"
"I guess I was kind of scared you wouldn't care much for Joralemon, after New York."
"Why, Carl, you mustn't say that to me!"
"I didn't mean to hurt your feelings, Gertie, honestly I didn't. I was just joking. I didn't think you'd take me seriously."
"As though I could forget my old friends, even in New York!"
"I didn't think that. Straight. Please tell me about New York. That's the place, all right. Jiminy! wouldn't I like to go there!"
"I wish you could have been there, Carl. We had such fun in my school. There weren't any boys in it, but we——"
"No boys in it? Why, how's that?"
"Why, it was just for girls."
"I see," he said, fatuously, completely satisfied.
"We did have the best times, Carl. I must tell you about one awfully naughty thing Carrie—she was my chum in school—and I did. There was a stock company on Twenty-third Street, and we were all crazy about the actors, especially Clements Devereaux, and one afternoon Carrie told the principal she had a headache, and I asked if I could go home with her and read her the assignments for next day (they called the lessons 'assignments' there), and they thought I was such a meek little country mouse that I wouldn't ever fib, and so they let us go, and what do you think we did? She had tickets for 'The Two Orphans' at the stock company. (You've never seen 'The Two Orphans,' have you? It's perfectly splendid. I used to weep my eyes out over it.) And afterward we went and waited outside, right near the stage entrance, and what do you think? The leading man, Clements Devereaux, went right by us as near as I am to you. Oh, Carl, I wish you could have seen him! Maybe he wasn't the handsomest thing! He had the blackest, curliest hair, and he wore a thumb ring."
"I don't think much of all these hamfatters," growled Carl. "Actors always go broke and have to walk back to Chicago. Don't you think it 'd be better to be a civil engineer or something like that, instead of having to slick up your hair and carry a cane? They're just dudes."
"Why! of course, Carl, you silly boy! You don't suppose I'd take Clements seriously, do you? You silly boy!"
"I'm not a boy."
"I don't mean it that way." She sat up, touched his shoulder, and sank back. He blushed with bliss, and the fear that some one had seen, as she continued: "I always think of you as just as old as I am. We always will be, won't we?"
"Now you must go and talk to Doris Carson. Poor thing, she always is a wall-flower."
However much he thought of common things as he left her, beyond those common things was the miracle that Gertie had grown into the one perfect, divinely ordained woman, and that he would talk to her again. He danced the Virginia reel. Instead of clumping sulkily through the steps, as at other parties, he heeded Adelaide Benner's lessons, and watched Gertie in the hope that she would see how well he was dancing. He shouted a demand that they play "Skip to Maloo," and cried down the shy girls who giggled that they were too old for the childish party-game. He howled, without prejudice in favor of any particular key, the ancient words:
"Rats in the sugar-bowl, two by two, Bats in the belfry, two by two, Rats in the sugar-bowl, two by two, Skip to Maloo, my darling."
In the nonchalant company of the smarter young bachelors up-stairs he smoked a cigarette. But he sneaked away. He paused at the bend in the stairs. Below him was Gertie, silver-gowned, wonderful. He wanted to go down to her. He would have given up his chance for a motor-car to be able to swagger down like an Eddie Klemm. For the Carl Ericson who sailed his ice-boat over inch-thick ice was timid now. He poked into the library, and in a nausea of discomfort he conversed with Mrs. Cowles, Mrs. Cowles doing the conversing.
"Are you going to be a Republican or a Democrat, Carl?" asked the forbidding lady.
"Yessum," mumbled Carl, peering over at Gertie's throne, where Ben Rusk was being cultured.
"I hope you are having a good time. We always wish our young friends to have an especially good time at Gertrude's parties," Mrs. Cowles sniffed, and bowed away.
Carl sat beside Adelaide Benner in the decorous and giggling circle that ringed the room, waiting for the "refreshments." He was healthily interested in devouring maple ice-cream and chocolate layer-cake. But all the while he was spying on the group gathering about Gertie—Ben Rusk, Howard Griffin, and Joe Jordan. He took the most strategic precautions lest some one think that he wanted to look at Gertie; made such ponderous efforts to prove he was care-free that every one knew something was the matter.
Ben Rusk was taking no part in the gaiety of Howard and Joe. The serious man of letters was not easily led into paths of frivolity. Carl swore to himself: "Ben 's the only guy I know that's got any delicate feelings. He appreciates how Gertie feels when she's sick, poor girl. He don't make a goat of himself, like Joe.... Or maybe he's got a stomach-ache."
"Post-office!" cried Howard Griffin to the room at large. "Come on! We're all of us going to be kids again, and play post-office. Who's the first girl wants to be kissed?"
"The idea!" giggled Adelaide Benner.
"Me for Adelaide!" bawled Joe Jordan.
"Oh, Jo-oe, bet I kiss Gertie!" from Irving Lamb.
"Just as if we were children——"
"He must think we're kids again——"
"Shamey! Winnie wants to be kissed, and Carl won't——"
"I don't, either, so there——"
"I think it's awful."
"Bet I kiss Gertie——"
Carl was furious at all of them as they strained their shoulders forward from their chairs and laughed. He asked himself, "Haven't these galoots got any sense?"
To speak so lightly of kissing Gertie! He stared at the smooth rounding of her left cheek below the cheek-bone till it took a separate identity, and its white softness filled the room.
Ten minutes afterward, playing "post-office," he was facing Gertie in the semi-darkness of the sitting-room, authorized by the game to kiss her; shut in with his divinity.
She took his hand. Her voice was crooning, "Are you going to kiss me terribly hard?"
He tried to be gracefully mocking: "Oh yes! Sure! I'm going to eat you alive."
She was waiting.
He wished that she would not hold his hand. Within he groaned, "Gee whiz! I feel foolish!" He croaked: "Do you feel better, now? You'll catch more cold in here, won't you? There's kind of a draught. Lemme look at this window."
Crossing to the obviously tight window, he ran his finger along the edge of the sash with infinite care. He trembled. In a second, now, he had to turn and make light of the lips which he would fain have approached with ceremony pompous and lingering.
Gertie flopped into a chair, laughing: "I believe you're afraid to kiss me! 'Fraid cat! You'll never be a squire of dames, like those actors are! All right for you!"
"I am not afraid!" he piped.... Even his prized semi-bass voice had deserted him.... He rushed to the back of her chair and leaned over, confused, determined. Hastily he kissed her. The kiss landed on the tip of her cold nose.
And the whole party was tumbling in, crying:
"Time 's up! You can't hug her all evening!"
"Did you see? He kissed her on the nose!"
"Did he? Ohhhhh!"
"Time 's up. Can't try it again."
Joe Jordan, in the van, was dancing fantastically, scraping his forefinger at Carl, in token of disgrace.
The riotous crowd, Gertie and Carl among them, flooded out again. To show that he had not minded the incident of the misplaced kiss, Carl had to be very loud and merry in the library for a few minutes; but when the game of "post-office" was over and Mrs. Cowles asked Ray to turn down the lamp in the sitting-room, Carl insisted:
"I'll do it, Mrs. Cowles; I'm nearer 'n Ray," and bolted.
He knew that he was wicked in not staying in the library and continuing his duties to the party. He had to crowd into a minute all his agonizing and be back at once.
It was beautiful in the stilly sitting-room, away from the noisy crowd, to hear love's heart beating. He darted to the chair where Gertie had sat and guiltily kissed its arm. He tiptoed to the table, blew out the lamp, remembered that he should only have turned down the wick, tried to raise the chimney, burnt his fingers, snatched his handkerchief, dropped it, groaned, picked up the handkerchief, raised the chimney, put it on the table, searched his pockets for a match, found it, dropped it, picked it up from the floor, dropped his knife from his pocket as he stooped, felt itchy about the scalp, picked up the knife, relighted the lamp, exquisitely adjusted the chimney—and again blew out the flame. And swore.
As darkness whirled into the room again the vision of Gertie came nearer. Then he understood his illness, and gasped: "Great jumping Jupiter on a high mountain! I guess—I'm—in—love! Me!"
The party was breaking up. Each boy, as he accompanied a girl from the yellow lamplight into the below-zero cold, shouted and scuffled the snow, to indicate that there was nothing serious in his attentions, and immediately tried to manoeuver his girl away from the others. Mrs. Cowles was standing in the hall—not hurrying the guests away, you understand, but perfectly resigned to accepting any farewells—when Gertie, moving gently among them with little sounds of pleasure, penned Carl in a corner and demanded:
"Are you going to see some one home? I suppose you'll forget poor me completely, now!"
"I will not!"
"I wanted to tell you what Ray and Mr. Griffin said about Plato and about being lawyers. Isn't it nice you'll know them when you go to Plato?"
"Yes, it 'll be great."
"Mr. Griffin 's going to be a lawyer and maybe Ray will, too, and why don't you think about being one? You can get to be a judge and know all the best people. It would be lovely.... Refining influences—they—that's——"
"I couldn't ever be a high-class lawyer like Griffin will," said Carl, his head on one side, much pleased.
"You silly boy, of course you could. I think you've got just as much brains as he has, and Ray says they all look up to him even in Plato. And I don't see why Plato isn't just as good—of course it isn't as large, but it's so select and the faculty can give you so much more individual attention, and I don't see why it isn't every bit as good as Yale and Michigan and all those Eastern colleges.... Howard—Mr. Griffin—he says that he wouldn't ever have thought of being a lawyer only a girl was such a good influence with him, and if you get to be a famous man, too, maybe I'll have been just a teeny-weeny bit of an influence, too, won't I?"
"I must get back now and say good-by to my guests. Good night, Carl."
"I am going to study—you just watch me; and if I do get to go to Plato——Oh, gee! you always have been a good influence——" He noticed that Doris Carson was watching them. "Well, I gotta be going. I've had a peach of a time. Good night."
Doris Carson was expectantly waiting for one of the boys to "see her home," but Carl guiltily stole up to Ben Rusk and commanded:
"Le's hike, Fatty. Le's take a walk. Something big to tell you."
Carl kicked up the snow in moon-shot veils. The lake boomed. For all their woolen mittens, ribbed red-cotton wristlets, and plush caps with ear-laps, the cold seared them. Carl encouraged Ben to discourse of Gertie and the delights of a long and hopeless love. He discovered that, actually, Ben had suddenly fallen in love with Adelaide Benner. "Gee!" he exulted. "Maybe that gives me a chance with Gertie, then. But I won't let her know Ben ain't in love with her any more. Jiminy! ain't it lucky Gertie liked me just when Ben fell in love with somebody else! Funny the way things go; and her never knowing about Ben." He laid down his cards. While they plowed through the hard snow-drifts, swinging their arms against their chests like milkmen, he blurted out all his secret: that Gertie was the "slickest girl in town"; that no one appreciated her.
"Ho, ho!" jeered Ben.
"I thought you were crazy about her, and then you start kidding about her! A swell bunch of chivalry you got, you and your Galahad! You——"
"Don't you go jumping on Galahad, or I'll fight!"
"He was all right, but you ain't," said Carl. "You hadn't ought to ever sneer at love."
"Why, you said, just this afternoon——"
"You poor yahoo, I was only teasing you. No; about Gertie. It's like this: she was telling me a lot about how Griffin 's going to be a lawyer, about how much they make in cities, and I've about decided I'll be a lawyer."
"Thought you were going to be a mechanical engineer?"
"Well, can't a fellow change his mind? When you're an engineer you're always running around the country, and you never get shaved or anything, and there ain't any refining influences——"
The absorbing game of "what we're going to be" made them forget snow and cold-squeezed fingers. Ben, it was decided, was to own a newspaper and support C. Ericson, Attorney-at-Law, in his dramatic run for state senator.
Carl did not mention Gertie again. But it all meant Gertie.
* * * * *
Carl made his round trimming the arc-lights next day, apparently a rudely healthy young person, but really a dreamer love-lorn and misunderstood. He had found a good excuse for calling on Gertie, at noon, and had been informed that Miss Gertrude was taking a nap. He determined to go up the lake for rabbits. He doubted if he would ever return, and wondered if he would be missed. Who would care if he froze to death? He wouldn't! (Though he did seem to be taking certain precautions, by donning a mackinaw coat, two pairs of trousers, two pairs of woolen socks, and shoe-packs.)
He was graceful as an Indian when he swept, on skees he had made himself, across miles of snow covering the lake and dazzling in the diffused light of an even gray sky. The reeds by the marshy shore were frost-glittering and clattered faintly. Marshy islands were lost in snow. Hummocks and ice-jams and the weaving patterns of mink tracks were blended in one white immensity, on which Carl was like a fly on a plaster ceiling. The world was deserted. But Carl was not lonely. He forgot all about Gertie as he cached his skees by the shore and prowled through the woods, leaping on brush-piles and shooting quickly when a rabbit ran out.
When he had bagged three rabbits he was besieged by the melancholy of loneliness, the perfection of the silver-gowned Gertie. He wanted to talk. He thought of Bone Stillman.
It was very likely that Bone was, as usual in winter, up beyond Big Bend, fishing for pickerel with tip-ups. A never-stopping dot in the dusk, Carl headed for Big Bend, three miles away.
The tip-up fisher watches a dozen tip-ups—short, automatic fishing-rods, with lines running through the ice, the pivoted arm signaling the presence of a fish at the bait. Sometimes, for warmth, he has a tiny shanty, perhaps five feet by six in ground area, heated by a powder-can stove. Bone Stillman often spent the night in his movable shanty on the lake, which added to his reputation as village eccentric. But he was more popular, now, with the local sporting gentlemen, who found that he played a divine game of poker.
"Hello, son!" he greeted Carl. "Come in. Leave them long legs of yours up on shore if there ain't room."
"Say, Bone, do you think a fellow ever ought to join a church?"
"Well, suppose he was going to be a lawyer and go in for politics?"
"Look here. What 're you thinking of becoming a lawyer for?"
"Didn't say I was."
"Of course you're thinking of it. Look here. Don't you know you've got a chance of seeing the world? You're one of the lucky people that can have a touch of the wanderlust without being made useless by it—as I have. You may, you may wander in thought as well as on freight-trains, and discover something for the world. Whereas a lawyer——They're priests. They decide what's holy and punish you if you don't guess right. They set up codes that it takes lawyers to interpret, and so they perpetuate themselves. I don't mean to say you're extraordinary in having a chance to wander. Don't get the big-head over it. You're a pretty average young American. There's plenty of the same kind. Only, mostly they get tied up to something before they see what a big world there is to hike in, and I want to keep you from that. I'm not roasting lawyers——Yes, I am, too. They live in calf-bound books. Son, son, for God's sake live in life."
"Yes, but look here, Bone; I was just thinking about it, that's all. You're always drumming it into me about not taking anything for granted. Anyway, by the time I go to Plato I'll know——"
"D'you mean to say you're going to that back-creek nunnery? That Blackhaw University? Are you going to play checkers all through life?"
"Oh, I don't know, now, Bone. Plato ain't so bad. A fellow's got to go some place so he can mix with people that know what's the proper thing to do. Refining influences and like that."
"Proper! Refining! Son, son, are you going to get Joralemonized? If you want what the French folks call the grand manner, if you're going to be a tip-top, A Number 1, genuwine grand senyor, or however they pronounce it, why, all right, go to it; that's one way of playing a big game. But when it comes down to a short-bit, fresh-water sewing-circle like Plato College, where an imitation scholar teaches you imitation translations of useless classics, and amble-footed girls teach you imitation party manners that 'd make you just as plumb ridic'lous in a real salon as they would in a lumber-camp, why——Oh, sa-a-a-y! I've got it. Girls, eh? What girl 've you been falling in love with to get this Plato idea from, eh?"
"Aw, I ain't in love, Bone."
"No, I don't opine you are. At your age you got about as much chance of being in love as you have of being a grandfather. But somehow I seem to have a little old suspicion that you think you're in love. But it's none of my business, and I ain't going to ask questions about it." He patted Carl on the shoulder, moving his arm with difficulty in their small, dark space. "Son, I've learned this in my life—and I've done quite some hiking at that, even if I didn't have the book-l'arnin' and the git-up-and-git to make anything out of my experience. It's a thing I ain't big enough to follow up, but I know it's there. Life is just a little old checker game played by the alfalfa contingent at the country store unless you've got an ambition that's too big to ever quite lasso it. You want to know that there's something ahead that's bigger and more beautiful than anything you've ever seen, and never stop till—well, till you can't follow the road any more. And anything or anybody that doesn't pack any surprises—get that?—surprises for you, is dead, and you want to slough it like a snake does its skin. You want to keep on remembering that Chicago's beyond Joralemon, and Paris beyond Chicago, and beyond Paris—well, maybe there's some big peak of the Himalayas."
For hours they talked, Bone desperately striving to make his dreams articulate to Carl—and to himself. They ate fish fried on the powder-can stove, with half-warm coffee. They walked a few steps outside the shack in the ringing cold, to stretch stiff legs. Carl saw a world of unuttered freedom and beauty forthshadowed in Bone's cloudy speech. But he was melancholy. For he was going to give up his citizenship in wonderland for Gertie Cowles.
* * * * *
Gertie continued to enjoy ill health for another week. Every evening Carl walked past her house, hoping that he might see her at a window, longing to dare to call. Each night he pictured rescuing her from things—rescuing her from fire, from drowning, from evil men. He felt himself the more bound to her by the social recognition of having his name in the Joralemon Dynamite, the following Thursday:
One of the pleasantest affairs of the holiday season among the younger set was held last Friday evening, when Gertrude Cowles entertained a number of her young friends at a party at her mother's handsome residence on Maple Hill. Among those present were Mesdames Benner and Rusk, who came in for a brief time to assist in the jollities of the evening, Misses Benner, Carson, Wesselius, Madlund, Ripka, Smith, Lansing, and Brick; and Messrs. Ray Cowles, his classmate Howard Griffin, who is spending his vacation here from Plato College, Carl Ericson, Joseph Jordan, Irving Lamb, Benjamin Rusk, Nels Thorsten, Peter Schoenhof, and William T. Upham. After dancing and games, which were thoroughly enjoyed by all present, and a social hour spent in discussing the events of the season in J. H. S., a most delicious repast was served and the party adjourned, one and all voting that they had been royally entertained.
The glory was the greater because at least seven names had been omitted from the list of guests. Such social recognition satisfied Carl—for half an hour. Possibly it nerved him finally to call on Gertie.
Since for a week he had been dreading a chilly reception when he should call, he was immeasurably surprised when he did call and got what he expected. He had not expected the fates to be so treacherous as to treat him as he expected, after he had disarmed them by expecting it.
When he rang the bell he was an immensely grown-up lawyer (though he couldn't get his worn, navy-blue tie to hang exactly right). He turned into a crestfallen youth as Mrs. Cowles opened the door and waited—waited!—for him to speak, after a crisp:
"Well? What is it, Carl?"
"Why, uh, I just thought I'd come and see how Gertie is."
"Gertrude is much better, thank you. I presume she will return to school at the end of vacation."
The hall behind Mrs. Cowles seemed very stately, very long.
"I've heard a lot saying they hoped she was better."
"You may tell them that she is better."
Mrs. Cowles shivered. No one could possibly have looked more like a person closing a door without actually closing one. "Lena!" she shrieked, "close the kitchen door. There's a draught." She turned back to Carl.
The shy lover vanished. An angry young man challenged, "If Gertie 's up I think I'll come in a few minutes and see her."
"Why, uh——" hesitated Mrs. Cowles.
He merely walked in past her. His anger kept its own council, for he could depend upon Gertie's warm greeting—lonely Gertie, he would bring her the cheer of the great open.
The piano sounded in the library, and the voice of the one perfect girl mingled with a man's tenor in "Old Black Joe." Carl stalked into the library. Gertie was there, much corseted, well powdered, wearing a blue foulard frenziedly dotted with white, and being cultured in company with Dr. Doyle, the lively young dentist who had recently taken an office in the National Bank Block. He was a graduate of the University of Minnesota—dental department. He had oily black hair, and smiled with gold-filled teeth before one came to the real point of a joke. He sang in the Congregational church choir, and played tennis in a crimson-and-black blazer—the only one in Joralemon.
To Carl Dr. Doyle was dismayingly mature and smart. He horribly feared him as a rival. For the second time that evening he did not balk fate by fearing it. The dentist was a rival. After fluttering about the mature charms of Miss Dietz, the school drawing-teacher, and taking a tentative buggy-ride or two with the miller's daughter, Dr. Doyle was bringing all the charm of his professional position and professional teeth and patent-leather shoes to bear upon Gertie.
And Gertie was interested. Obviously. She was all of eighteen to-night. She frowned slightly as she turned on the piano-stool at Carl's entrance, and mechanically: "This is a pleasant surprise." Then, enthusiastically: "Isn't it too bad that Dr. Doyle was out of town, or I would have invited him to my party, and he would have given us some of his lovely songs.... Do try the second verse, doctor. The harmony is so lovely."
Carl sat at the other end of the library from Gertie and the piano, while Mrs. Cowles entertained him. He obediently said "Yessum" and "No, 'm" to the observations which she offered from the fullness of her lack of experience of life. He sat straight and still. Behind his fixed smile he was simultaneously longing to break into the musical fiesta, and envying the dentist's ability to get married without having to wait to grow up, and trying to follow what Mrs. Cowles was saying.
She droned, while crocheting with high-minded industry a useless piano-scarf, "Do you still go hunting, Carl?"
"Yessum. Quite a little rabbit-hunting. Oh, not very much."
(At the distant piano, across the shining acres of floor, the mystical woman and a dentist had ceased singing, and were examining a fresh sheet of music. The dentist coyly poked his finger at her coiffure, and she slapped the finger, gurgling.)
"I hope you don't neglect your school work, though, Carl." Mrs. Cowles held the scarf nearer the lamp and squinted at it, deliberately and solemnly, through the eye-glasses that lorded it atop her severe nose. A headachy scent of moth-balls was in the dull air. She forbiddingly moved the shade of the lamp about a tenth of an inch. She removed some non-existent dust from the wrought-iron standard. Her gestures said that the lamp was decidedly more chic than the pink-shaded hanging lamps, raised and lowered on squeaking chains, which characterized most Joralemon living-rooms. She glanced at the red lambrequin over the nearest window. The moth-ball smell grew more stupifying.
Carl felt stuffy in the top of his nose as he mumbled, "Oh, I work pretty hard at chemistry, but, gee! I can't see much to all this Latin."
"When you're a little older, Carl, you'll learn that the things you like now aren't necessarily the things that are good for you. I used to say to Gertrude—of course she is older than you, but she hasn't been a young lady for so very long, even yet—and I used to say to her, 'Gertrude, you will do exactly what I tell you to, and not what you want to do, and we shall make—no—more—words—about it!' And I think she sees now that her mother was right about some things! Dr. Doyle said to me, and of course you know, Carl, that he's a very fine scholar—our pastor told me that the doctor reads French better than he does, and the doctor's told me some things about modern French authors that I didn't know, and I used to read French almost as well as English, when I was a girl, my teachers all told me—and he says that he thinks that Gertrude has a very fine mind, and he was so glad that she hasn't been taken in by all this wicked, hysterical way girls have to-day of thinking they know more than their mothers."
"Yes, she is—Gertie is——I think she's got a very fine mind," Carl commented.
(From the other end of the room Gertie could be overheard confiding to the dentist in tones of hushed and delicious adult scandal, "They say that when she was in St. Paul she——")
"So," Mrs. Cowles serenely sniffed on, while the bridge of Carl's nose felt broader and broader, stretching wider and wider, as that stuffy feeling increased and the intensive heat stung his eyelids, "you see you mustn't think because you'd rather play around with the boys than study Latin, Carl, that it's the fault of your Latin-teacher." She nodded at him with a condescending smile that was infinitely insulting.
He knew it and resented it, but he did not resent it actively, for he was busy marveling, "How the dickens is it I never heard Doc Doyle was stuck on Gertie? Everybody thought he was going with Bertha. Dang him, anyway! The way he snickers, you'd think she was his best girl."
Mrs. Cowles was loftily pursuing her pillared way: "Latin was known to be the best study for developing the mind a long, long time——" And her clicking crochet-needles impishly echoed, "A long, long time," and the odor of moth-balls got down into Carl's throat, while in the golden Olympian atmosphere at the other end of the room Gertie coyly pretended to slap the dentist's hand with a series of tittering taps. "A long, long time before either you or I were born, Carl, and we can't very well set ourselves up to be wiser than the wisest men that ever lived, now can we?" Again the patronizing smile. "That would scarcely——"
Carl resolved: "This 's got to stop. I got to do something." He felt her monologue as a blank steel wall which he could not pierce. Aloud: "Yes, that's so, I guess. Say, that's a fine dress Gertie 's got on to-night, ain't it.... Say, I been learning to play crokinole at Ben Rusk's. You got a board, haven't you? Would you like to play? Does the doctor play?"
"Indeed, I haven't the slightest idea, but I have very little doubt that he does—he plays tennis so beautifully. He is going to teach Gertrude, in the spring." She stopped, and again held the scarf up to the light. "I am so glad that my girly, that was so naughty once and ran away with you—I don't think I shall ever get over the awful fright I had that night!—I am so glad that, now she is growing up, clever people like Dr. Doyle appreciate her so much, so very much."
She dropped her crochet to her lap and stared squarely at Carl. Her warning that he would do exceedingly well to go home was more than plain. He stared back, agitated but not surrendering. Deliberately, almost suavely, with ten years of experience added to the sixteen years that he had brought into the room, he said:
"I'll see if they'd like to play." He sauntered to the other end of the room, abashed before the mystic woman, and ventured: "I saw Ray, to-day.... I got to be going, pretty quick, but I was wondering if you two felt like playing some crokinole?"
Gertie said, slowly: "I'd like to, Carl, but——Unless you'd like to play, doctor?"
"Why of course it's comme il faut to play, Miss Cowles, but I was just hoping to have the pleasure of hearing you make some more of your delectable music," bowed the dentist, and Gertie bowed back; and their smiles joined in a glittery bridge of social aplomb.
"Oh yes," from Carl, "that—yes, do——But you hadn't ought to play too much if you haven't been well."
"Oh, Carl!" shrieked Gertie. "'Ought not to,' not 'hadn't ought to'!"
"'Ought not to,'" repeated Mrs. Cowles, icily, while the dentist waved his hand in an amused manner and contributed:
"Ought not to say 'hadn't ought to,' as my preceptor used to tell me.... I'd like to hear you sing Longfellow's 'Psalm of Life,' Miss Cowles."
"Don't you think Longfellow's a bum poet?" growled Carl. "Bone Stillman says Longfellow's the grind-organ of poetry. Like this: 'Life is re-al, life is ear-nest, tum te diddle dydle dum!'"
"Carl," ordered Mrs. Cowles, "you will please to never mention that Stillman person in my house!"
"Oh, Carl!" rebuked Gertie. She rose from the piano-stool. Her essence of virginal femininity, its pure and cloistered and white-camisoled odor, bespelled Carl to fainting timidity. And while he was thus defenseless the dentist thrust:
"Why, they tell me Stillman doesn't even believe the Bible!"
Carl was not to retrieve his credit with Gertie, but he couldn't betray Bone Stillman. Hastily: "Yes, maybe, that way——Oh, say, doctor, Pete Jordan was telling me" (liar!) "that you were one of the best tennis-players at the U."
Gertie sat down again.
The dentist coyly fluffed his hair and deprecated, "Oh no, I wouldn't say that!"
Carl had won. Instantly they three became a country club of urban aristocrats, who laughed at the poor rustics of Joralemon for knowing nothing of golf and polo. Carl was winning their tolerance—though not their close attention—by relating certain interesting facts from the inside pages of the local paper as to how far the tennis-rackets sold in one year would extend, if laid end to end, when he saw Gertie and her mother glance at the hall. Gertie giggled. Mrs. Cowles frowned. He followed their glance.
Clumping through the hall was his second cousin, Lena, the Cowleses' "hired girl." Lena nodded and said, "Hallo, Carl!"
Gertie and the dentist raised their eyebrows at each other.
Carl talked for two minutes about something, he did not know what, and took his leave. In the intensity of his effort to be resentfully dignified he stumbled over the hall hat-rack. He heard Gertie yelp with laughter.
"I got to go to college—be worthy of her!" he groaned, all the way home. "And I can't afford to go to the U. of M. I'd like to be free, like Bone says, but I've got to go to Plato."
Plato College, Minnesota, is as earnest and undistinguished, as provincially dull and pathetically human, as a spinster missionary. Its two hundred or two hundred and fifty students come from the furrows, asking for spiritual bread, and are given a Greek root. Red-brick buildings, designed by the architect of county jails, are grouped about that high, bare, cupola-crowned gray-stone barracks, the Academic Building, like red and faded blossoms about a tombstone. In the air is the scent of crab-apples and meadowy prairies, for a time, but soon settles down a winter bitter as the learning of the Rev. S. Alcott Wood, D.D., the president. The town and college of Plato disturb the expanse of prairie scarce more than a group of haystacks. In winter the walks blur into the general whiteness, and the trees shrink to chilly skeletons, and the college is like five blocks set on a frozen bed-sheet—no shelter for the warm and timid soul, yet no windy peak for the bold. The snow wipes out all the summer-time individuality of place, and the halls are lonelier at dusk than the prairie itself—far lonelier than the yellow-lighted jerry-built shops in the town. The students never lose, for good or bad, their touch with the fields. From droning class-rooms the victims of education see the rippling wheat in summer; and in winter the impenetrable wall of sky. Footsteps and quick laughter of men and girls, furtively flirting along the brick walls under the beautiful maples, do make Plato dear to remember. They do not make it brilliant. They do not explain the advantages of leaving the farm for another farm.