Free Air

by Sinclair Lewis

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XX - The Free Woman

BEFORE breakfast, Claire darted down to the hotel yard. She beamed at Milt, who was lacing a rawhide patch on a tire, before she remembered that they were not on speaking terms. They both looked extremely sheepish and young. It was Pinky Parrott who was the social lubricant. Pinky was always on speaking terms with everybody. "Ah, here she is! The little lady of the mutinous eyes! Our colonel of the flivver hussars!"

But he got no credit. Milt straightened up and lumbered, "Hel-lo!"

She peeped at him and whispered, "Hel-lo!"

"Say, oh please, Claire—— I didn't mean——"

"Oh, I know! Let's—let's go have breakfast."

"Was awfully afraid you'd think we were fresh, but when we came in last night, and saw your car—didn't like the looks of the hotel much, and thought we'd stick around."

"I'm so glad. Oh, Milt—yes, and you, Mr. Parrott—will you whip—lick—beat up—however you want to say it—somebody for me?"

With one glad communal smile Milt and Pinky[206] curved up their wrists and made motions as of pulling up their sleeves.

"But not unless I say so. I want to be a Citizeness Fixit. I've been good for so long. But now——"

"Show him to me!" and "Up, lads, and atum!" responded her squad.

"Not till after breakfast."

It was a sufficiently vile breakfast, at the Tavern. The feature was curious cakes whose interior was raw creepy dough. A dozen skilled workmen were at the same long table with Claire, Milt, Pinky, and Mr. Boltwood—the last two of whom were polite and scenically descriptive to each other, but portentously silent about gold-mines. The landlady and a slavey waited on table; the landlord could be seen loafing in the kitchen.

Toward the end of the meal Claire insultingly crooked her finger at the landlady and said, "Come here, woman."

The landlady stared, then ignored her.

"Very well. Then I'll say it publicly!" Claire swept the workmen with an affectionate smile. "Gentlemen of Pellago, I want you to know from one of the poor tourists who have been cheated at this nasty place that we depend on you to do something. This woman and her husband are criminals, in the way they overcharge for hideous food and——"

The landlady had been petrified. Now she charged[207] down. Behind her came her husband. Milt arose. The husband stopped. But it was Pinky who faced the landlady, tapped her shoulder, and launched into, "And what's more, you hag, if our new friends here have any sense, they'll run you out of town."

That was only the beginning of Pinky's paper on corrections and charities. He enjoyed himself. Before he finished, the landlady was crying ... she voluntarily promised to give her boarders waffles, some morning, jus' soon as she could find the waffle-iron.

With her guard about her, at the office desk, Claire paid one dollar apiece for the rooms, and discussion was not.

Before they started, Milt had the chance to say to her, "I'm getting so I can handle Pinky now. Have to. Thinking of getting hold of his gold-mine. I just give him the eye, as your friend Mr. Saxton would, and he gets so meek——"

"But don't! Please understand me, Milt; I do admire Mr. Saxton; he is fine and capable, and really generous; only—— He may be just a bit snippish at times, while you—you're a playmate—father's and mine—and—— I did face that landlady, didn't I! I'm not soft and trivial, am I! Praise!"

She had driven through the panhandle of Idaho into Washington, through Spokane, through the writhing lava deposits of Moses Coulee where fruit trees[208] grow on volcanic ash. Beyond Wenatchee, with its rows of apple trees striping the climbing fields like corduroy in folds, she had come to the famous climb of Blewett Pass. Once over that pass, and Snoqualmie, she would romp into Seattle.

She was sorry that she hadn't come to know Milt better, but perhaps she would see him in Seattle.

Not adventure alone was she finding, but high intellectual benefit in studying the names of towns in the state of Washington. Not Kankakee nor Kalamazoo nor Oshkosh can rival the picturesque fancy of Washington, and Claire combined the town-names in a lyric so emotion-stirring that it ought, perhaps, to be the national anthem. It ran:

Humptulips, Tum Tum, Moclips, Yelm,
Satsop, Bucoda, Omak, Enumclaw,
Tillicum, Bossburg, Chettlo, Chattaroy,
Zillah, Selah, Cowiche, Keechelus,
Bluestem, Bluelight, Onion Creek, Sockeye,
Antwine, Chopaka, Startup, Kapowsin,
Skamokawa, Sixprong, Pysht!
Klickitat, Kittitas, Spangle, Cedonia,
Pe Ell, Cle Elum, Sallal, Chimacum,
Index, Taholah, Synarep, Puyallup,
Wallula, Wawawai, Wauconda, Washougal,
Walla Walla, Washtucna, Wahluke,
Solkulk, Newaukum, Wahkiakus,
Penawawa, Ohop, Ladd!

Harrah, Olalla, Umtanum, Chuckanut,
Soap Lake, Loon Lake, Addy, Ace, Usk,
Chillowist, Moxee City, Yellepit, Cashup,
Moonax, Mabton, Tolt, Mukilteo,
Poulsbo, Toppenish, Whetstone, Inchelium,
Fishtrap, Carnation, Shine, Monte Cristo,
Conconully, Roza, Maud!
China Bend, Zumwalt, Sapolil, Riffle,
Touchet, Chesaw, Chew, Klum, Bly,
Humorist, Hammer, Nooksack, Oso,
Samamish, Dusty, Tiger, Turk, Dot,
Scenic, Tekoa, Nellita, Attalia,
Steilacoom, Tweedle, Ruff, Lisabeula,
Latah, Peola, Towal, Eltopia,
Steptoe, Pluvius, Sol Duc, Twisp!

"And then," complained Claire, "they talk about Amy Lowell! I leave it to you, Henry B., if any union poet has ever written as gay a refrain as 'Ohop Ladd'!"

She was not merely playing mental whist. She was trying to keep from worry. All the way she had heard of Blewett Pass; its fourteen miles of climbing, and the last half mile of stern pitch. On this eastern side of the pass, the new road was not open; there was a tortuous, flint-scattered trail, too narrow, in most places, for the passing of other cars. Claire was glad that Milt and Pinky were near her.

If so many of the race of kind advisers of tourists[210] had not warned her about it, doubtless she would have gone over the pass without difficulty. But their voluntary croaking sapped her nerve, and her father's. He kept worrying, "Do you think we better try it?" When they stopped at a ranch house at the foot of the climb, for the night, he seemed unusually tired. He complained of chill. He did not eat breakfast. They started out silent, depressed.

He crouched in the corner of the seat. She looked at him and was anxious. She stopped on the first level space on the pass, crying, "You are perfectly miserable. I'm afraid of—— I think we ought to see a doctor."

"Oh, I'll be all right."

But she waited till Milt came pit-pattering up the slope. "Father feels rather sick. What shall I do? Turn round and drive to the nearest doctor—at Cashmere, I suppose?"

"There's a magnolious medico ahead here on the pass," Pinky Parrott interrupted. "A young thing, but they say he's a graduate of Harvard. He's out here because he has some timber-claims. Look, Milt o' the Daggett, why don't you drive Miss Boltwood's 'bus—make better time, and hustle the old gent up to the doc, and I'll come on behind with your machine."

"Why," Claire fretted, "I hate——"

A new Milt, the boss, abrupt, almost bullying, snapped out of his bug. "Good idee. Jump in, Claire.[211] I'll take your father up. Heh, whasat, Pink? Yes, I get it; second turn beyond grocery. Right. On we go. Huh? Oh, we'll think about the gold-mine later, Pink."

With the three of them wedged into the seat of the Gomez, and Pinky recklessly skittering after them in the bug, they climbed again—and lo! there was no climb! Unconsciously Claire had hesitated before dashing at each sharp upsloping bend; had lost headway while she was wondering, "Suppose the car went off this curve?" Milt never sped up, but he never slackened. His driving was as rhythmical as music.

They were so packed in that he could scarcely reach gear lever and hand-brake. He halted on a level, and curtly asked, "That trap-door in the back of the car—convertible extra seat?"

"Yes, but we almost never use it, and it's stuck. Can't get it open."

"I'll open it all right! Got a big screwdriver? Want you sit back there. Need elbow room."

"Perhaps I'd better drive with Mr. Pinky."

"Nope. Don't think better."

With one yank he opened the trap-door, revealing a folding seat, which she meekly took. Back there, she reflected, "How strong his back looks. Funny how the little silvery hairs grow at the back of his neck."

They came to a settlement and the red cedar bungalow of Dr. Hooker Beach. The moment Claire saw[212] the doctor's thin demanding face, she trusted him. He spoke to Mr. Boltwood with assurance: "All you need is some rest, and your digestion is a little shaky. Been eating some pork? Might stay here a day or two. We're glad to have a glimpse of Easterners."

Mr. Boltwood went to bed in the Beaches' guest-room. Mrs. Beach gave Claire and Milt lunch, with thin toast and thin china, on a porch from which an arroyo dropped down for a hundred feet. Fir trees scented the air, and a talking machine played the same Russian music that was popular that same moment in New York. And the Beaches knew people who knew Claire.

Claire was thinking. These people were genuine aristocrats, while Jeff Saxton, for all his family and his assumptions about life, was the eternal climber. Milt, who had been uncomfortable with Jeff, was serene and un-self-conscious with the Beaches, and the doctor gratefully took his advice about his stationary gas engine. "He's rather like the Beaches in his simplicity—yes, and his ability to do anything if he considers it worth while," she decided.

After lunch, when the doctor and his wife had to trot off to a patient, Claire proposed, "Let's walk up to that ledge of rock and see the view, shall we, Milt?"

"Yes! And keep an eye on the road for Pinky. The poor nut, he hasn't showed up. So reckless; hope he hasn't driven the Teal off the road."

She crouched at the edge of a rock, where she would have been frightened, a month before, and looked across the main road to a creek in a pine-laced gully. He sat beside her, elbows on knees.

"Those Beaches—their kin are judges and senators and college Presidents, all over New England," she said. "This doctor must be the grandson of the ambassador, I fancy."

"Honest? I thought they were just regular folks. Was I nice?"

"Of course you were."

"Did I—did I wash my paws and sit up and beg?"

"No, you aren't a little dog. I'm that. You're the big mastiff that guards the house, while I run and yip." She was turned toward him, smiling. Her hand was beside him. He touched the back of it with his forefinger, as though he was afraid he might soil it.

There seemed to be no reason, but he was trembling as he stammered, "I—I—I'm d-darn glad I didn't know they were anybody, or 'd have been as bad as a flivver driver the first time he tries a t-twelve-cylinder machine. G-gee your hand is little!"

She took it back and inspected it. "I suppose it is. And pretty useless."

"N-no, it isn't, but your shoes are. Why don't you wear boots when you're out like this?" A flicker of his earlier peremptoriness came into his voice. She resented it:

"My shoes are perfectly sensible! I will not wear those horrible vegetarian uplift sacks on my feet!"

"Your shoes may be all right for New York, but you're not going to New York for a while. You've simply got to see some of this country while you're out here—British Columbia and Alaska."

"Would be nice, but I've had enough roughing——"

"Chance to see the grandest mountains in the world, almost, and then you want to go back to tea and all that junk!"

"Stop trying to bully me! You have been dictatorial ever since we started up——"

"Have I? Didn't mean to be. Though I suppose I usually am bullying. At least I run things. There's two kinds of people; those that give orders, and those that naturally take them; and I belong to the first one, and——"

"But my dear Milt, so do I, and really——"

"And mostly I'd take them from you. But hang it, Seattle is just a day away, and you'll forget me. Wish I could kidnap you. Have half a mind to. Take you way up into the mountains, and when you got used to roughing it in sure-enough wilderness—say you'd helped me haul timber for a flume—then we'd be real pals. You have the stuff in you, but you still need toughening before——"

"Listen to me, Milton. You have been reading fiction,[215] about this man—sometimes he's a lumberjack, and sometimes a trapper or a miner, but always he's frightfully hairy—and he sees a charming woman in the city, and kidnaps her, and shuts her up in some unspeakable shanty, and makes her eat nice cold boiled potatoes, and so naturally, she simply adores him! A hundred men have written that story, and it's an example of their insane masculine conceit, which I, as a woman, resent. Shakespeare may have started it, with his silly Taming of the Shrew. Shakespeare's men may have been real, but his women were dolls, designed to please some majesty. You may not know it, but there are women today who don't live just to please majesties' fancies. If a woman like me were kidnapped, she would go on hating the brute, or if she did give in, then the man would lose anyway, because she would have degenerated; she'd have turned into a slave, and lost exactly the things he'd liked in her. Oh, you cavemen! With your belief that you can force women to like you! I have more courage than any of you!"

"I admit you have courage, but you'd have still more, if you bucked the wilds."

"Nonsense! In New York I face every day a hundred complicated problems you don't know I ever heard of!"

"Let me remind you that Brer Julius Cæsar said he'd rather be mayor in a little Spanish town than[216] police commissioner in Rome. I'm king in Schoenstrom, while you're just one of a couple hundred thousand bright people in New York——"

"Really? Oh, at least a million. Thanks!"

"Oh—gee—Claire, I didn't mean to be personal, and get in a row and all, but—can't you see—kind of desperate—Seattle so soon——"

Her face was turned from him; its thin profile was firm as silver wire. He blundered off into silence and—they were at it again!

"I didn't mean to make you angry," he gulped.

"Well, you did! Bullying—— You and your men of granite, in mackinaws and a much-needed shave, trying to make a well-bred woman satisfied with a view consisting of rocks and stumps and socks on the line! Let me tell you that compared with a street canyon, a mountain canyon is simply dead, and yet these unlettered wild men——"

"See here! I don't know if you're firing these adjectives at me, but I don't know that I'm so much more unlettered—— You talked about taking French in your finishing-school. Well, they taught American in mine!"

"They would!"

Then he was angry. "Yes, and chemistry and physics and Greek and Latin and history and mathematics and economics, and I took more or less of a whirl at all of them, while you were fiddling with[217] ribbons, and then I had to buck mechanics and business methods."

"I also 'fiddled' with manners—an unfortunate omission in your curriculum, I take it! You have been reasonably rude——"

"So have you!"

"I had to be! But I trust you begin to see that even your strong hand couldn't control a woman's taste. Kidnapping! As intelligent a boy as you wanting to imitate these boorish movie——"

"Not a darn bit more boorish than your smart set, with its champagne and these orgies at country clubs——"

"You know so much about country clubs, don't you! The worst orgy I ever saw at one was the golf champion reading the beauty department in Boudoir. Would you mind backing up your statements about the vices of myself and my friends——"

"Oh, you. Oh, I didn't mean——"

"Then why did you——"

"Now you're bullying me, and you know that if the smart set isn't vicious, at least it's so snobbish that it can't see any——"

"Then it's wise to be snobbish, because if it did condescend——"

"I won't stand people talking about condescending——"

"Would you mind not shouting so?"

[218]"Very well! I'll keep still!"

Silence again, while both of them looked unhappy, and tried to remember just what they had been fighting about. They did not at first notice a small red car larruping gaily over the road beneath the ledge, though the driver was a pink-haired man in a green coat. He was almost gone before Milt choked, "It's Pinky!"

"Pink! Pinky!" he bellowed.

Pinky looked back but, instead of stopping, he sped up, and kept going.

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