Free Air

by Sinclair Lewis

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XIII - Adventurers by Firelight

NEITHER of the Boltwoods had seen the Grand Canyon of the Colorado. The Canyon of the Yellowstone was their first revelation of intimidating depth and color gone mad. When their car and Milt's had been parked in the palisaded corral back of the camp at which they were to stay, they three set out for the canyon's edge chattering, and stopped dumb.

Mr. Boltwood declined to descend. He returned to the camp for a cigar. The boy and girl crept down seeming miles of damp steps to an outhanging pinnacle that still was miles of empty airy drop above the river bed. Claire had a quaking feeling that this rock pulpit was going to slide. She thrust out her hand, seized Milt's paw, and in its firm warmth found comfort. Clinging to its security she followed him by the crawling path to the river below. She looked up at columns of crimson and saffron and burning brown, up at the matronly falls, up at lone pines clinging to jutting rocks that must be already crashing toward her, and in the splendor she knew the Panic fear that is the deepest reaction to beauty.

[139]Milt merely shook his head as he stared up. He had neither gossiped nor coyly squeezed her hand as he had guided her. She fell to thinking that she preferred this American boy in this American scene to a nimble gentleman saluting the Alps in a dinky green hat with a little feather.

It was Milt who, when they had labored back up again, when they had sat smiling at each other with comfortable weariness, made her see the canyon not as a freak, but as the miraculous work of a stream rolling grains of sand for millions of years, till it had cut this Jovian intaglio. He seemed to have read—whether in books, or in paragraphs in mechanical magazines—a good deal about geology. He made it real. Not that she paid much attention to what he actually said! She was too busy thinking of the fact that he should say it at all.

Not condescendingly but very companionably she accompanied Milt in the exploration of their camp for the night—the big dining tent, the city of individual bedroom tents, canvas-sided and wooden-floored, each with a tiny stove for the cold mornings of these high altitudes. She was awed that evening by hearing her waitress discussing the novels of Ibanez. Jeff Saxton knew the names of at least six Russian novelists, but Jeff was not highly authoritative regarding Spanish literature.

"I suppose she's a school-teacher, working here in[140] vacation," Claire whispered to Milt, beside her at the long, busy, scenically conversational table.

"Our waitress? Well, sort of. I understand she's professor of literature in some college," said Milt, in a matter of fact way. And he didn't at all see the sequence when she went on:

"There is an America! I'm glad I've found it!"

The camp's evening bonfire was made of logs on end about a stake of iron. As the logs blazed up, the guests on the circle of benches crooned "Suwanee River," and "Old Black Joe," and Claire crooned with them. She had been afraid that her father would be bored, but she saw that, above his carefully tended cigar, he was dreaming. She wondered if there had been a time when he had hummed old songs.

The fire sank to coals. The crowd wandered off to their tents. Mr. Boltwood followed them after an apologetic, "Good night. Don't stay up too late." With a scattering of only half a dozen people on the benches, this huge circle seemed deserted; and Claire and Milt, leaning forward, chins on hands, were alone—by their own campfire, among the mountains.

The stars stooped down to the hills; the pines were a wall of blackness; a coyote yammered to point the stillness; and the mighty pile of coals gave a warmth luxurious in the creeping mountain chill.

The silence of large places awes the brisk intruder, and Claire's voice was unconsciously lowered as she[141] begged, "Tell me something about yourself, Mr. Daggett. I don't really know anything at all."

"Oh, you wouldn't be interested. Just Schoenstrom!"

"But just Schoenstrom might be extremely interesting."

"But honest, you'd think I was—edging in on you!"

"I know what you are thinking. The time I suggested, way back there in Dakota, that you were sticking too close. You've never got over it. I've tried to make up for it, but—— I really don't blame you. I was horrid. I deserve being beaten. But you do keep on punishing ra——"

"Punishing? Lord, I didn't mean to! No! Honest! It was nothing. You were right. Looked as though I was inviting myself—— But, oh, pleassssse, Miss Boltwood, don't ever think for a sec. that I meant to be a grouch——"

"Then do tell me—— Who is this Milton Daggett that you know so much better than I ever can?"

"Well," Milt crossed his knees, caught his chin in his hand, "I don't know as I really do know him so well. I thought I did. I was onto his evil ways. He was the son of the pioneer doctor, Maine folks."

"Really? My mother came from Maine."

Milt did not try to find out that they were cousins. He went on, "This kid, Milt, went to high school in[142] St. Cloud—town twenty times as big as Schoenstrom—but he drifted back because his dad was old and needed him, after his mother's death——"

"You have no brothers or sisters?"

"No. Nobody. 'Cept Lady Vere de Vere—which animal she is going to get cuffed if she chews up any more of my overcoat out in my tent tonight!... Well, this kid worked 'round, machinery mostly, and got interested in cars, and started a garage—— Wee, that was an awful shop, first one I had! In Rauskukle's barn. Six wrenches and a screwdriver and a one-lung pump! And I didn't know a roller-bearing from three-point suspension! But—— Well, anyway, he worked along, and built a regular garage, and paid off practically all the mortgage on it——"

"I remember stopping at a garage in Schoenstrom, I'm almost sure it was, for something. I seem to remember it was a good place. Do you own it? Really?"

"Ye-es, what there is of it."

"But there's a great deal of it. It's efficient. You've done your job. That's more than most high-born aides-de-camp could say."

"Honestly? Well—I don't know——"

"Who did you play with in Schoenstrom? Oh, I wish I'd noticed that town. But I couldn't tell then that—— What, uh, which girl did you fall in love with?"

[143]"None! Honest! None! Not one! Never fell in love——"

"You're unfortunate. I have, lots of times. I remember quite enjoying being kissed once, at a dance."

When he answered, his voice was strange: "I suppose you're engaged to somebody."

"No. And I don't know that I shall be. Once, I thought I liked a man, rather. He has nice eyes and the most correct spectacles, and he is polite to his mother at breakfast, and his name is Jeff, and he will undoubtedly be worth five or six hundred thousand dollars, some day, and his opinions on George Moore and commercial paper are equally sound and unoriginal—— Oh, I ought not to speak of him, and I certainly ought not to be spiteful. I'm not at all reticent and ladylike, am I! But—— Somehow I can't see him out here, against a mountain of jagged rock."

"Only you won't always be out here against mountains. Some day you'll be back in—where is it in New York State?"

"I confess it's Brooklyn—but not what you'd mean by Brooklyn. Your remark shows you to have subtlety. I must remember that, mustn't I! I won't always be driving through this big land. But—— Will I get all fussy and ribbon-tied again, when I go back?"

"No. You won't. You drive like a man."

"What has that——"

[144]"It has a lot to do with it. A garage man can trail along behind another car and figger out, figure out, just about what kind of a person the driver is from the way he handles his boat. Now you bite into the job. You drive pretty neat—neatly. You don't either scoot too far out of the road in passing a car, or take corners too wide. You won't be fussy. But still, I suppose you'll be glad to be back among your own folks and you'll forget the wild Milt that tagged along——"

"Milt—or Mr. Daggett—no, Milt! I shall never, in my oldest grayest year, in a ducky cap by the fireplace, forget the half-second when your hand came flashing along, and caught that man on the running-board. But it wasn't just that melodrama. If that hadn't happened, something else would have, to symbolize you. It's that you—oh, you took me in, a stranger, and watched over me, and taught me the customs of the country, and were never impatient. No, I shan't forget that; neither of the Boltwoods will."

In the rose-haze of firelight he straightened up and stared at her, but he settled into shyness again as she added:

"Perhaps others would have done the same thing. I don't know. If they had, I should have remembered them too. But it happened that it was you, and I, uh, my father and I, will always be grateful. We both hope we may see you in Seattle. What are you planning[145] to do there? What is your ambition? Or is that a rude question?"

"Why, uh——"

"What I mean—— I mean, how did you happen to want to go there, with a garage at home? You still control it?"

"Oh yes. Left my mechanic in charge. Why, I just kind of decided suddenly. I guess it was what they call an inspiration. Always wanted a long trip, anyway, and I thought maybe in Seattle I could hook up with something a little peppier than Schoenstrom. Maybe something in Alaska. Always wished I were a mechanical or civil engineer so——"

"Then why don't you become one? You're young—— How old are you?"


"We're both children, compared with Je—compared with some men who are my friends. You're quite young enough to go to engineering school. And take some academic courses on the side—English, so on. Why don't you? Have you ever thought of it?"

"N-no, I hadn't thought of doing it, but—— All right. I will! In Seattle! B'lieve the University of Washington is there."

"You mean it?"

"Yes. I do. You're the boss."

"That's—that's flattering, but—— Do you always make up your mind as quickly as this?"

[146]"When the boss gives orders!"

He smiled, and she smiled back, but this time it was she who was embarrassed. "You're rather overwhelming. You change your life—if you really do mean it—because a jeune fille from Brooklyn is so impertinent, from her Olympian height of finishing-school learning, as to suggest that you do so."

"I don't know what a jeune fille is, but I do know——" He sprang up. He did not look at her. He paraded back and forth, three steps to the right, three to the left, his hands in his pockets, his voice impersonal. "I know you're the finest person I ever met. You're the kind—I knew there must be people like you, because I knew the Joneses. They're the only friends I've got that have, oh, I suppose it's what they call culture."

In a long monologue, uninterrupted by Claire, he told of his affection for the Schoenstrom "prof" and his wife. The practical, slangy Milt of the garage was lost in the enthusiastic undergraduate adoring his instructor in the university that exists as veritably in a teacher's or a doctor's sitting-room in every Schoenstrom as it does in certain lugubrious stone hulks recognized by a state legislature as magically empowered to paste on sacred labels lettered "Bachelor of Arts."

He broke from his revelations to plump down on the bench beside her, to slap his palm with his fist,[147] and sigh, "Lord, I've been gassing on! Guess I bored you!"

"Oh, please, Milt, please! I see it all so—— It must have been wonderful, the evening when Mrs. Jones read Noyes's 'Highwayman' aloud. Tell me—long before that—were you terribly lonely as a little boy?"

Now Milt had not been a terribly lonely little boy. He had been a leader in a gang devoted to fighting, swimming, pickerel-spearing, beggie-stealing, and catching rides on freights.

But he believed that he was accurately presenting every afternoon of his childhood, as he mused, "Yes, I guess I was, pretty much. I remember I used to sit on dad's doorstep, all those long sleepy summer afternoons, and I'd think, 'Aw, geeeeee, I—wisht—I—had—somebody—to—play—with!' I always wanted to make-b'lieve Robin Hood, but none of the other kids—so many of them were German; they didn't know about Robin Hood; so I used to scout off alone."

"If I could only have been there, to be Maid Marian for you! We'd have learned archery! Lonely little boy on the doorstep!" Her fingers just touched his sleeve. In her gesture, the ember-light caught the crystal of her wrist watch. She stooped to peer at it, and her pitying tenderness broke off in an agitated: "Heavings! Is it that late? To bed! Good night, Milt."

"Good night, Cl—— Miss Boltwood."

"No. 'Claire,' of course. I'm not normally a first-name-snatcher, but I do seem to have fallen into saying 'Milt.' Night!"

As she undressed, in her tent, Claire reflected, "He won't take advantage of my being friendly, will he? Only thing is—— I sha'n't dare to look at Henry B. when Milt calls me 'Claire' in that sedate Brooklyn Heights presence. The dear lamb! Lonely afternoons——!"


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