Free Air

by Sinclair Lewis

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

XVI - The Spectacles of Authority

OVER the transcontinental divide and into Butte, diamond-glittering on its hills in the dark; into Missoula, where there are trees and a university, with a mountain in everybody's backyard; through the Flathead Agency, where scarlet-blanketed Indians stalk out of tepees and the papoose rides on mother's back as in forgotten days; down to St. Ignatius, that Italian Alp town with its old mission at the foot of mountains like the wall of Heaven, Claire had driven west, then north. She was sailing past Flathead Lake, where fifty miles of mountain glory are reflected in bright waters. Everywhere were sections of flat wheat-plains, stirring with threshing, with clattering machinery and the flash of blown straw. But these miniature prairies were encircled by abrupt mountains.

Mr. Boltwood remarked, "I'd rather have one of these homesteads and look across my fields at those hills than be King of England." Not that he made any effort to buy one of the homesteads. But then, he made no appreciable effort to become King of England.

Claire had not seen Milt for a day and a half; not since the morning when both cars had left Butte. She[166] wondered, and was piqued, and slightly lonely. Toward evening, when she was speculating as to whether she would make Kalispell—almost up to the Canadian border—she saw a woman run into the road from a house on the shore of Flathead Lake. The woman held out her hand. Claire pulled up.

"Are you Miss Boltwood?"

It was as startling as the same question would have been in a Chinese village.

"W-why, yes."

"Somebody trying to get you on the long-distance 'phone."

"Me? 'Phone?"

She was trembling. "Something's happened to Milt. He needs me!" She could not manage her voice, as she got the operator on the farmers'-line wire, and croaked, "Was some one trying to get Miss Boltwood?"

"Yes. This Boltwood? Hotel in Kalispell trying to locate you, for two hours. Been telephoning all along the line, from Butte to Somers."

"W-well, w-will you g-get 'em for me?"

It was not Milt's placid and slightly twangy voice but one smoother, more decisive, perplexingly familiar, that finally vibrated, "Hello! Hello! Miss Boltwood! Operator, I can't hear. Get me a better connection. Miss Boltwood?"

"Yes! Yes! This is Miss Boltwood!" she kept[167] beseeching, during a long and not unheated controversy between the unknown and the crisp operator, who knew nothing of the English language beyond, "Here's your party. Why don't you talk? Speak louder!"

Then came clearly, "Hear me now?"

"Yes! Yes!"

"Miss Boltwood?"


"Oh. Oh, hello, Claire. This is Jeff."

"Jess who?"

"Not Jess. Jeff! Geoffrey! J-e-f-f! Jeff Saxton!"

"Oh!" It was like a sob. "Why—why—but you're in New York."

"Not exactly, dear. I'm in Kalispell, Montana."

"But that's right near here."

"So am I!"


"Out West to see copper interests. Traced you from Yellowstone Park but missed you at Butte. Thought I'd catch you on road. You talking from Barmberry's?"

The woman who had hailed her was not missing a word of a telephone conversation which might be relative to death, fire, elopement, or any other dramatic event. Claire begged of her, "Where in the world am I talking from, anyway?"

"This is Barmberry's Inn."

[168]"Yes," Claire answered on the telephone, "I seem to be. Shall I start on and——"

"No. Got ripping plan. Stay right where you are. Got a fast car waiting. Be right down. We'll have dinner. By!"

A click. No answer to Claire's urgent hellos. She hung up the receiver very, very carefully. She hated to turn and face her audience of Mr. Henry B. Boltwood, Mr. James Barmberry, Mrs. James Barmberry, and four Barmberry buds averaging five and a quarter in age. She tried to ignore the Barmberrys, but their silence was noisy and interested while she informed her father, "It's Jeff Saxton! Out here to see copper mines. Telephoned along road to catch us. Says we're to wait dinner till he comes."

"Yessum," Mrs. Barmberry contributed, "he told me if I did catch you, I was to have some new-killed chickens ready to fry, and some whipped cream—— Jim Barmberry, you go right out and finish whipping that cream, and don't stand there gawping and gooping, and you children, you scat!"

Claire seized the moment of Mr. Boltwood's lordly though bewildered bow to their hostess, and escaped outdoors. Round the original settler's log-cabin were nests of shacks and tents, for bedrooms, and on a screened porch, looking on Flathead Lake, was the dining-room. The few other guests had finished supper and gone to their tents.

[169]She ambled to the lake shore, feeling feebler, more slapped and sent back to be a good little girl, than she had when Milt had hitched a forest to the back axle, three days ago. A map of her thoughts about Jeff Saxton would have shown a labyrinth. Now, she was muttering, "Dear Jeff! So thoughtful! Clever of him to find me! So good to see him again!" Now: "It's still distinctly understood that I am not engaged to him, and I'm not going to be surprised into kissing him when he comes down like a wolf on the fold." Now: "Jeff Saxton! Here! Makes me homesick for the Heights. And nice shops in Manhattan, and a really good play—music just before the curtain goes up." Now: "Ohhhhhh geeeeee whizzzzzz! I wonder if he'll let us go any farther in the car? He's so managerial, and dad is sure to take his side. He tried to scare us off by that telegram to Fargo." Now: "He'd be horrified if he knew about that bum brake. Milt didn't mind. Milt likes his womenfolks to be daring. Jeff wants his harem admiring and very reliable."

She crouched on the shore, a rather forlorn figure. The peaks of the Mission Range, across the violet-shadowed mirror of Flathead Lake, were a sudden pure rose, in reflection of sunset, then stony, forbidding. Across the road, on the Barmberry porch, she could hear her father saying "Ah?" and "Indeed?" to James's stories.

Up the road, a blaring horn, great lights growing[170] momently more dazzling, a roar, a rush, the halting car, and out of its blurred bulk, a trim figure darting—Jeff Saxton—home and the people she loved, and the ways and days she knew best of all. He had shouted only "Is Miss——" before she had rushed to him, into the comfort of his arms, and kissed him.

She backed off and tried to sound as if it hadn't happened, but she was quavery: "I can't believe it! It's too ridiculously wonderful to see you!" She retreated toward the Barmberry porch, Jeff following, his two hands out. They came within the range of the house lights, and Mr. Boltwood hailed, "Ah! Geoffrey! Never had such a surprise—nor a more delightful one!"

"Mr. Boltwood! Looking splendid, sir! New man! William Street better look to its laurels when you come back and get into the game!"

Then, on the lamp-lighted porch, the two men shook hands, and looked for some other cordial thing to do. They thought about giving each other cigars. They smiled, and backed away, and smiled, in the foolish, indeterminate way males have, being unable to take it out in kissing. Mr. Boltwood solved the situation by hemming, "Must trot in and wash. See you very soon." Mr. James Barmberry and the squad of lesser Barmberrys regretfully followed. Claire was alone with Jeff, and she was frightened. Yet she was admitting that Jeff, in his English cap and flaring[171] London top-coat, his keen smile and his extreme shavedness, was more attractive than she had remembered.

"Glad to see me?" he demanded.

"Oh, rather!"

"You're looking——"

"You're so——"

"Nice trip? You know you've sent me nothing but postcards with 'Pretty town,' or something equally sentimental."

"Yes, it's really been bully. These mountains and big spaces simply inspire me." She said it rather defiantly.

"Of course they do! Trouble is, with you away, we've nothing to inspire us!"

"Do you need anything, with your office and your club?"

"Why, Claire!"

"I'm sorry. That was horrid of me."

"Yes, it was. Though I don't mind. I'm sure we've all become meek, missing you so. I'm quite willing to be bullied, and reminded that I'm a mere T.B.M."

She had got herself into it; she had to tell him that he wasn't just a business man; that she had "just meant" he was so practical.

"But Jeff is no longer the practical one," he declared. "Think of Claire driving over deserts and[172] mountains. But—— Oh, it's been so lonely for us. Can you guess how much? A dozen times every evening, I've turned to the telephone to call you up and beg you to let me nip in and see you, and then realized you weren't there, and I've just sat looking at the 'phone—— Oh, other people are so dull!"

"You really miss——"

"I wish I were a poet, so I could tell you adequately. But you haven't said you missed me, Claire. Didn't you, a teeny bit? Wouldn't it have been tolerable to have poor old Jeff along, to drive down dangerous hills——"

"And fill grease-cups! Nasty and stickum on the fingers!"

"Yes, I'd have done that, too. And invented surprises along the way. I'm a fine surpriser! I've arranged for a motor-boat so we can explore the lake here tomorrow. That's why I had you wait here instead of coming on to Kalispell. Tomorrow morning, unfortunately, I have to hustle back and catch a train—called to California, and possibly a northern trip. But meantime—— By now, my driver must have sneaked my s'prises into the kitchen."

"What are they?"


"Food. Eats. Divine eats."


"But what? Please, sir. Claire is so hungry."

[173]"We shall see in time, my child. Uncle Jeff is not to be hurried."

"Ah—let—me—see—now! I'll kick and scream!"

From New York Jeff had brought a mammoth picnic basket. To the fried chicken ordered for dinner he added sealed jars of purée of wood pigeon, of stuffed artichokes prepared by his club chef; caviar and anchovies; a marvelous nightmare-creating fruit cake to go with the whipped cream; two quarts of a famous sherry; candied fruits in a silver box. Dinner was served not on the dining-porch but before the fire in the Barmberrys' living-room. Claire looked at the candied fruits, stared at Jeff rather queerly—as though she was really thinking of some one else—and mused:

"I didn't know I cared so much for these foolish luxuries. Tonight, I'd like a bath, just a tiny bit scented, and a real dressing-table with a triple mirror, and French talc, and come down in a dinner-gown—— Oh, I have enjoyed the trip, Jeff. But my poor body does get so tired and dusty, and then you treacherously come along with these things that you've magicked out of the mountains and—— I'm not a pioneer woman, after all. And Henry B. is not a caveman. See him act idolatrously toward his soup."

"I feel idolatrous. I'd forgotten the supreme ethical importance of the soup. I'll never let myself forget it again," said Mr. Boltwood, in the tone of one who has come home.

[174]Claire was grateful to Jeff that he did not let her go on being grateful. He turned the talk to Brooklyn. He was neat and explicit—and almost funny—in his description of an outdoor presentation of Midsummer Night's Dream, in which a domestic and intellectual lady weighing a hundred and eighty-seven stageside had enacted Puck. As they sat after dinner, as Claire shivered, he produced a knitted robe, and pulled it about her shoulders, smiling at her in a lonely, hungry way. She caught his hand.

"Nice Jeff!" she whispered.

"Oh, my dear!" he implored. He shook his head in a wistful way that caught her heart, and dutifully went back to informing Mr. Boltwood of the true state of the markets.

"Talk to Claire too!" she demanded. She stopped, stared. From outside she heard a nervous pit-pit-pit, a blurred dialogue between Mr. James Barmberry and another man. Into the room rambled Milt Daggett, dusty of unpressed blue suit, tired of eyes, and not too well shaved of chin, grumbling, "Thought I'd never catch up with you, Claire—— Why——"

"Oh! Oh, Milt—Mr. Daggett—— Oh, Jeff, this is our good friend Milt Daggett, who has helped us along the road."

Jeff's lucid rimless spectacles stared at Milt's wind-reddened eyes; his jaunty patch-pocket outing clothes sniffed at Milt's sweater; his even voice followed[175] Milt's grunt of surprise with a curt "Ah. Mr. Daggett."

"Pleased meet you," faltered Milt.

Jeff nodded, turned his shoulder on Milt, and went on, "The fact is, Mr. Boltwood, the whole metal market——"

Milt was looking from one to another. Claire was now over her first shocked comparison of candied fruits with motor grease. She rose, moved toward Milt, murmuring, "Have you had dinner?"

The door opened again. A pink-haired, red-faced man in a preposterous green belted suit lunged in, swept his broad felt hat in greeting, and boomed like a cheap actor:

"Friends of my friend Milt, we about to dine salute you. Let me introduce myself as Westlake Parrott, better known to the vulgar as Pinky Parrott, gentleman adventurer, born in the conjunction of Mars and Venus, with Saturn ascendant."

Jeff had ignored Milt. But at this absurd second intrusion on his decidedly private dinner-party he flipped to the center of the room and said "I beg your pardon!" in such a head-office manner that the pink-locked Mystery halted in his bombast. Claire felt wabbly. She had no theories as to where Milt had acquired a private jester, nor as to what was about to happen to Milt—and possibly to her incautious self.

Return to the Free Air Summary Return to the Sinclair Lewis Library

Anton Chekhov
Nathaniel Hawthorne
Susan Glaspell
Mark Twain
Edgar Allan Poe
Mary E. Wilkins Freeman
Herman Melville
Stephen Leacock
Kate Chopin
Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson