Free Air

by Sinclair Lewis

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XII - The Wonders of Nature with All Modern Improvements

HELLO!" said Milt.

"Hel-lo!" said Claire.

"How dee do," said Mr. Boltwood.

"This is so nice! Where's your car? I hope nothing's happened," glowed Claire.

"No. It's back here from the road a piece. Camp there tonight. Reason I stopped—— Struck me you've never done any mountain driving, and there's some pretty good climbs in the Park; slick road, but we go up to almost nine thousand feet. And cold mornings. Thought I'd tip you off to some driving tricks—if you'd like me to."

"Oh, of course. Very grateful——"

"Then I'll tag after you tomorrow, and speak my piece."

"So jolly you're going through the Park."

"Yes, thought might as well. What the guide books call 'Wonders of Nature.' Only wonder of nature I ever saw in Schoenstrom was my friend Mac trying to think he was soused after a case of near-beer. Well—— See you tomorrow."

Not once had he smiled. His tone had been impersonal. He vaulted the fence and tramped away.

[130]When they drove out of town, in the morning, they found Milt waiting by the road, and he followed them till noon. By urgent request, he shared a lunch, and lectured upon going down long grades in first or second speed, to save brakes; upon the use of the retarded spark and the slipped clutch in climbing. His bug was beside the Gomez in the line-up at the Park gate, when the United States Army came to seal one's firearms, and to inquire on which mountain one intended to be killed by defective brakes. He was just behind her all the climb up to Mammoth Hot Springs.

When she paused for water to cool the boiling radiator, the bug panted up, and with the first grin she had seen on his face since Dakota Milt chuckled, "The Teal is a grand car for mountains. Aside from overheating, bum lights, thin upholstery, faulty ignition, tissue-paper brake-bands, and this-here special aviation engine, specially built for a bumble-bee, it's what the catalogues call a powerful brute!"

Claire and her father stayed at the chain of hotels through the Park. Milt was always near them, but not at the hotels. He patronized one of the chains of permanent camps.

The Boltwoods invited him to dinner at one hotel, but he refused and——

Because he was afraid that Claire would find him intrusive, Milt was grave in her presence. He couldn't[131] respond either to her enthusiasm about canyon and colored pool—or to her rage about the tourists who, she alleged, preferred freak museum pieces to plain beauty; who never admired a view unless it was labeled by a signpost and megaphoned by a guide as something they ought to admire—and tell the Folks Back Home about.

When she tried to express this social rage to Milt he merely answered uneasily, "Yes, I guess there's something to that."

She was, he pondered, so darn particular. How could he ever figure out what he ought to do? No thanks; much obliged, but guessed he'd better not accept her invitation to dinner. Darn sorry couldn't come but—— Had promised a fellow down at the camp to have chow with him.

If in this Milt was veracious, he was rather fickle to his newly discovered friend; for while Claire was finishing dinner, a solemn young man was watching her through a window.

She was at a table for six. She was listening to a man of thirty in riding-breeches, a stock, and a pointed nose, who bowed to her every time he spoke, which was so frequently that his dining gave the impression of a man eating grape-fruit on a merry-go-round. Back in Schoenstrom, fortified by Mac and the bunch at the Old Home Lunch, Milt would have called the man a "dude," and—though less noisily than the[132] others—would have yelped, "Get onto Percy's beer-bottle pants. What's he got his neck bandaged for? Bet he's got a boil."

But now Milt yearned, "He does look swell. Wish I could get away with those things. Wouldn't I look like a fool with my knees buttoned up, though! And there's two other fellows in dress suits. Wouldn't mind those so much. Gee, it must be awful where you've got so many suits of trick clothes you don't know which one to wear.

"That fellow and Claire are talking pretty swift. He doesn't need any piston rings, that lad. Wonder—wonder what they're talking about? Music, I guess, and books and pictures and scenery. He's saying that no tongue or pen can describe the glories of the Park, and then he's trying to describe 'em. And maybe they know the same folks in New York. Lord, how I'd be out of it. I wish——"

Milt made a toothpick out of a match, decided that toothpicks were inelegant in his tragic mood, and longed: "Never did see her among her own kind of folks till now. I wish I could jabber about music and stuff. I'll learn it. I will! I can! I picked up autos in three months. I—— Milt, you're a dub. I wonder can they be talking French, maybe, or Wop, or something? I could get onto the sedan styles in highbrow talk as long as it was in American.

"I could probably spring linen-collar stuff about,[133] 'Really a delightful book, so full of delightful characters,' if I stuck by the rhetoric books long enough. But once they begin the parlez-vous, oui, oui, I'm a gone goose. Still, by golly, didn't I pick up Dutch—German—like a mice? Back off, son! You did not! You can talk Plattdeutsch something grand, as long as you keep the verbs and nouns in American. You got a nice character, Milt, but you haven't got any parts of speech.

"Now look at Percy! Taking a bath in a finger-bowl. I never could pull that finger-bowl stuff; pinning your ears back and jiu-jitsing the fried chicken, and then doing a high dive into a little dish that ain't—that isn't either a wash-bowl or real good lemonade. He's a perfect lady, Percy is. Dabs his mouth with his napkin like a watchmaker tinkering the carburetor in a wrist watch.

"Lookit him bow and scrape—asking her something—— Rats, he's going out in the lobby with her. Walks like a cat on a wet ash-pile. But—— Oh thunder, he's all right. Neat. I never could mingle with that bunch. I'd be web-footed and butter-fingered. And he seems to know all that bunch—bows to every maiden aunt in the shop. Now if I was following her, I'd never see anybody but her; rest of the folks could all bob their heads silly, and I'd never see one blame thing except that funny little soft spot at the back of her neck. Nope, you're kind to your[134] cat, Milt, but you weren't cut out to be no parlor-organ duet."

This same meditative young man might have been discovered walking past the porch of the hotel, his hands in his pockets, his eyes presumably on the stars—certainly he gave no signs of watching Claire and the man in riding-breeches as they leaned over the rail, looked at mountain-tops filmy in starlight, while in the cologne-atomized mode, Breeches quoted:

Ah, 'tis far heaven my awed heart seeks When I behold those mighty peaks. Milt could hear him commenting, "Doesn't that just get the feeling of the great open, Miss Boltwood?"

Milt did not catch her answer. Himself, he grunted, "I never could get much het up about this poetry that's full of Ah's and 'tises."

Claire must have seen Milt just after he had sauntered past. She cried, "Oh, Mr. Daggett! Just a moment!" She left Breeches, ran down to Milt. He was frightened. Was he going to get what he deserved for eavesdropping?

She was almost whispering. "Save me from our friend up on the porch," she implored.

He couldn't believe it. But he took a chance. "Won't you have a little walk?" he roared.

"So nice of you—just a little way, perhaps?" she sang out.

[135]They were silent till he got up the nerve to admire, "Glad you found some people you knew in the hotel."

"But I didn't."

"Oh, I thought your friend in the riding-pants was chummy."

"So did I!" She rather snorted.

"Well, he's a nice-looking lad. I did admire those pants. I never could wear anything like that."

"I should hope not—at dinner! The creepy jack-ass, I don't believe he's ever been on a horse in his life! He thinks riding-breeches are the——"

"Oh, that's it. Breeches, not pants."

"—last word in smartness. Overdressing is just ten degrees worse than underdressing."

"Oh, I don't know. Take this sloppy old blue suit of mine——"

"It's perfectly nice and simple, and quite well cut. You probably had a clever tailor."

"I had. He lives in Chicago or New York, I believe."

"Really? How did he come to Schoenstrom?"

"Never been there. This tailor is a busy boy. He fitted about eleventeen thousand people, last year."

"I see. Ready mades. Cheer up. That's where Henry B. Boltwood gets most of his clothes. Mr. Daggett, if ever I catch you in the Aren't-I-beautiful frame of mind of our friend back on the porch, I'll give up my trip to struggle for your soul."

[136]"He seemed to have soul in large chunks. He seemed to talk pretty painlessly. I had a hunch you and he were discussing sculpture, anyway. Maybe Rodin."

"What do you know about Rodin?"

"Articles in the magazines. Same place you learned about him!" But Milt did not sound rude. He said it chucklingly.

"You're perfectly right. And we've probably read the very same articles. Well, our friend back there said to me at dinner, 'It must be dreadful for you to have to encounter so many common people along the road.' I said, 'It is,' in the most insulting tone I could, and he just rolled his eyes, and hadn't an idea I meant him. Then he slickered his hair at me, and mooed, 'Is it not wonderful to see all these strange manifestations of the secrets of Nature!' and I said, 'Is it?' and he went on, 'One feels that if one could but meet a sympathetic lady here, one's cup of rejoicing in untrammeled nature——' Honest, Milt, Mr. Daggett, I mean, he did talk like that. Been reading books by optimistic lady authors. And one looked at me, one did, as if one would be willing to hold my hand, if I let one.

"He invited me to come out on the porch and give the double O. to handsome mountains as illuminated by terrestrial bodies, and I felt so weak in the presence of his conceit that I couldn't refuse. Then he insisted[137] on introducing me to a woman from my own Brooklyn, who condoled with me for having to talk to Western persons while motoring. Oh, dear God, that such people should live ... that the sniffy little Claire should once have been permitted to live!... And then I saw you!"

Through all her tirade they had stood close together, her face visibly eager in the glow from the hotel; and Milt had grown taller. But he responded, "I'm afraid I might have been just as bad. I haven't even reached the riding-breeches stage in evolution. Maybe never will."

"No. You won't. You'll go right through it. By and by, when you're so rich that father and I won't be allowed to associate with you, you'll wear riding-breeches—but for riding, not as a donation to the beauties of nature."

"Oh, I'm already rich. It shows. Waitress down at the camp asked me whose car I was driving through."

"I know what I wanted to say. Since you won't be our guest, will you be our host—I mean, as far as welcoming us? I think it would be fun for father and me to stop at your camp, tomorrow night, at the canyon, instead of at the hotel. Will you guide me to the canyon, if I do?"


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