Free Air

by Sinclair Lewis

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XVIII - The Fallacy of Romance

DURING dinner Milt watched Jeff Saxton's manner and manners. The hot day had turned into a cold night. Jeff tucked the knitted robe about Claire's shoulders, when she returned to the fire. He moved quietly and easily. He kept poking up the fire, smiling at Claire as he did so. He seemed without difficulty to maintain two conversations: one with Mr. Boltwood about finances, one with Claire about mysterious persons called Fannie and Alden and Chub and Bobbie and Dot, the mention of whom made Milt realize how much a stranger he was. Once, as he passed by Claire, Jeff said gently, "You are lovely!" Only that, and he did not look at her. But Milt saw that Claire flushed, and her eyes dimmed.

Pinky was silent till he had eaten about two-thirds of the total amount of fried eggs, cold lamb and ice-box curios. When Claire came over to see how they fared, Pinky removed himself, with smirking humility, and firmly joined himself to Jeff and Mr. Boltwood. He caught the subject of finance and, while Claire dropped down in the chair by Milt, Pinky was lecturing the two men from New York:

"Ah, finance! Queen of the sociological pantheon![189] I don't know how come I am so graced by Fortune as to have encountered in these wilds two gentlemen so obviously versed in the stratagems of the great golden game, but I will take the opportunity to give you gentlemen some statistics about the gold-deposits still existent in the Cascades and other ranges that may be of benefit and certainly will be a surprise to you. It happens that I have at the present time a mine——"

Claire was whispering to Milt, "If we can get rid of your dreadful passenger, I do want you to meet Mr. Saxton. He may be of use to you some day. He's terribly capable, and really quite nice. Think! He happened to be out here, and he traced me by telephone—oh, he treats long-distance 'phoning as I do a hair-pin. He brought down the duckiest presents—divertissements for dinner, and that knitted robe, and some real René Bleuzet perfume—I was all out of it—— And after the grime of the road——"

"Do you really care for things like that, all those awfully expensive luxuries?" begged Milt.

"Of course I do. Especially after small hotels."

"Then you don't really like adventuring?"

"Oh yes—in its place! For one thing, it makes a clever dinner seem so good by contrast!"

"Well—— Afraid I don't know much about clever dinners," Milt was sighing, when he was aware of Jeff Saxton looming down on him, demanding:

"Daggett, would you mind trying to inform your[190] friend that neither Mr. Boltwood nor I care to invest in his gold-mine? We can't seem to get that into his head. I don't mind being annoyed myself, but I really feel I must protect Mr. Boltwood."

"What can I do?"

"My dear sir, since you brought him here——"

It was the potassium cyanide and cracked ice and carpet tacks and TNT and castor oil in Jeff's "My dear sir" that did it. Milt discovered himself on his feet, bawling, "I am not your dear sir! Pinky is my guest, and—— Gee, sorry I lost my temper, Claire, terrible sorry. See you along the road. Good night. Pink! You take your hat! Git!"

Milt followed Pinky out of the door, snarling, "Git in the car, and do it quick. I'll take you clear to Blewett Pass. We drive all night."

Pinky was of great silence and tact. Milt lumped into the bug beside him. But he did not start the all-night drive. He wanted to crawl back, on his knees, to apologize to Claire—and to be slapped by Jeff Saxton. He compromised by slowly driving a quarter of a mile up the road, and camping there for the night.

Pinky tried to speak words of philosophy and cheer—just once he tried it.

For hours, by a small fire, Milt grieved that all his pride was gone in a weak longing to see Claire again. In the morning he did see her—putting off on the lake, in a motor-boat with Jeff and Mr. Barmberry.[191] He saw the boat return, saw Jeff get into the car which had brought him from Kalispell, saw the farewell, the long handclasp, the stoop of Jeff's head, and Claire's quick step backward before Jeff could kiss her. But Claire waved to Jeff long after his car had started.

When Claire and her father came along in the Gomez, Milt was standing by the road. She stopped. She smiled. "Night of sadness and regrets? You were fairly rude, Milt. So was Mr. Saxton, but I've lectured him, and he sends his apologies."

"I send him mine—'deed I do," said Milt gravely.

"Then everything's all right. I'm sure we were all tired. We'll just forget it."

"Morning, Daggett," Mr. Boltwood put in. "Hope you lose that dreadful red-headed person."

"No, I can't, Mr. Boltwood. When Mr. Saxton turned on me, I swore I'd take Pinky clear through to Blewett Pass ... though not to Seattle, by golly!"

"Foolish oaths should be broken," Claire platitudinized.

"Claire—look—— You don't really care so terribly much about these little luxuries, food and fixin's and six-dollar-a-day-hotel junk, do you?"

"Yes," stoutly, "I do."

"But not compared with mountains and——"

[192]"Oh, it's all very well to talk, and be so superior about these dear old grandeurs of Nature, and the heroism of pioneers, and I do like a glimpse of them. But the niceties of life do mean something and even if it is weak and dependent, I shall always simply adore them!"

"All these things are kind of softening." And he meant that she was still soft.

"At least they're not rude!" And she meant that he was rude.

"They're absolutely trivial. They shut off——"

"They shut off rain and snow and dirt, and I still fail to see the picturesqueness of dirt! Good-by!"

She had driven off, without looking back. She was heading for Seattle and the Pacific Ocean at forty miles an hour—and they had no engagement to meet either in Seattle or in the Pacific.

Before Milt went on he completed a task on which he had decided the night before while he had meditated on the tailored impertinence of Jeff Saxton's gray suit. The task was to give away the Best Suit, that stolid, very black covering which at Schoenstrom had seemed suitable either to a dance or to the Y. P. S. C. E. The recipient was Mr. Pinky Parrott, who gave in return a history of charity and high souls.

Milt did not listen. He was wondering, now that they had started, where they had started for. Certainly[193] not for Seattle! Why not stop and see Pinky's gold-mine? Maybe he did have one. Even Pinky had to tell the truth sometimes. With a good popular gold-mine in his possession, Milt could buy quantities of clothes like Jeff Saxton's, and——

"And," he reflected, "I can learn as good manners as his in one hour, with a dancing lesson thrown in. If I didn't, I'd sue the professor!"

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