Free Air

by Sinclair Lewis

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XXII - Across the Roof of the World

CLAIRE dressed Dlorus, cooked a dinner of beet greens, potatoes, and trout; and by bullying and great sweetness kept Dlorus from too many trips to the gin bottle. Milt caught the trout, cut wood, locked in a log shed Pinky's forlorn mining-tools. They started for North Yakima at eight of the evening, with Dlorus, back in the spare seat, alternately sobbing and to inattentive ears announcing what she'd say to the Old Hens.

Milt was devoted to persuading the huge cat of a car to tiptoe down the slippery gouged ruts of the road, and Claire's mind was driving with him. Every time he touched the foot-brake, she could feel the strain in the tendons of her own ankle.

A mile down the main road they stopped at a store-post-office to telephone back to Mr. Boltwood and Dr. Beach. On the porch was a man in overalls and laced boots. He was lean and quick-moving. As he raised his head, and his spectacles flashed, Claire caught Milt's arm and gasped, "Oh, my dear, I'm in a beautiful state of nerves. For a moment I thought that was Jeff Saxton. I bet it is his astral body!"

"And you thought he was going to forbid your[229] running away on this fool expedition, and you were scared," chuckled Milt, as they sat in the car.

"Of course I was! And I still am! I know what he'll say afterward! He is here, reasoning with me. Oughtn't I to be sensible? Oughtn't I to have you leave me at the Beaches' before you start—jolly jaunt to take a strange woman to her presumably homicidal husband! Why am I totally lacking in sense? Just listen to what Jeff is saying!"

"Of course you ought to go back, and let me drive alone. Absolutely insane, your——"

"But you would like me to go along, wouldn't you!"

"Like you to? It's our last ride together, and that bloomin' old Browning never thought of a ride together by midnight over the roof of the world! No, it's really our first ride together, and tomorrow—you're gone."

"No, I sha'n't be gone, but——" Addressing herself to the astounded overalled man on the porch, she declared, "You're quite right, Jeff. And Milt is wrong. Insane adventure. Only, it's wonderful to be young enough to do insane adventures. Falling down abyssy places is so much more interesting than bridge. I'm going—going—going!... Milt, you telephone."

"Don't you think you better?"

"No, siree! Father would forbid me. Try not[230] to get him—just tell Dr. Beach where we're going, and hang up, and scoot!"

All night they drove; down the Pacific side of Blewett Pass; down the sweeping spirals to a valley. Dlorus drowsed in the extra seat. Claire's sleepy head was fantastically swaying. She was awakened by an approaching roar and, as though she sat at a play, she watched a big racing machine coming toward them, passing them with two wheels in the ditch. She had only a thunderous glimpse of the stolid driver; a dark, hooded, romantic figure, like a sailor at the helm in a storm.

Milt cried, "Golly! May be a transcontinental racer! Be in New York in five days—going night and day—take mud at fifty an hour—crack mechanic right from the factory—change tires in three minutes—people waiting up all night to give him gasoline and a sandwich! That's my idea of fun!"

Studying Milt's shadowed face, Claire considered, "He could do it, too. Sitting there at the wheel, taking danger and good road with the same steadiness. Oh, he's—well, anyway, he's a dear boy."

But what she said was:

"Less dramatic things for you, now, Milt. Trigonometry is going to be your idea of fun; blueprints and engineering books."

"Yes. I know. I'm going to do it. Do four years' work in three—or two. I'll tack pages of[231] formulas on the wall, in my bum hallroom, and study 'em while I'm shaving. Oh, I'll be the grind! But learn to dance the fox-trot, though! If America gets into the war, I'll get into the engineering corps, and come back to school afterward."

"Will the finances——"

"I'll sell my garage, by mail. Rauskukle will take it. He won't rob me of more than a thousand dollars on price—not much more."

"You're going to love Seattle. And we'll have some good tramps while I'm there, you and I."

"Honestly? Will you want to?"

"Do you suppose for one second I'd give up my feeling of free air? If you don't come and get me, I'll call on you and make you come!"

"Warn you I'll probably be living over some beanery."

"Probably. With dirty steps leading up to it. I'll sweep the steps. I'll cook supper for you. I can do things, can't I! I did manage Dlorus, didn't I!"

He was murmuring, "Claire, dear!" when she changed her tone to the echo of Brooklyn Heights, and hurried on, "You do understand, don't you! We'll be, uh, good friends."

"Yes." He drove with much speed and silence.

Though they were devouring the dark road, though roadside rocks, caught by the headlights, seemed to fly up at them, though they went on forever, chased by a nightmare, Claire snuggled down in security. Her head drooped against his shoulder. He put his arm about her, his hand about her waist. She sleepily wondered if she ought to let him. She heard herself muttering, "Sorry I was so rude when you were so rude," and her chilly cheek discovered that the smooth-worn shoulder of his old blue coat was warm, and she wondered some more about the questions of waists and hands and—— She was asleep.

She awoke, bewildered to find that dawn was slipping into the air. While she had slept Milt had taken his arm from about her and fished out a lap-robe for her. Behind them, Dlorus was slumbering, with her soft mouth wide open. Claire felt the luxury of the pocket of warmth under the lap-robe; she comfortably stretched her legs while she pictured Milt driving on all the night, rigid, tireless, impersonal as the engineer of a night express.

They came into North Yakima at breakfast time, and found the house of Mr. Kloh, a neat, bare, drab frame box, with tight small front and back yards. Dlorus was awake, and when she wasn't yawning, she was enjoying being hysterical.

"Miss Boltwood," she whined, "you go in and jolly him up."

Milt begged, "Better let me do it, Claire."

They looked squarely at each other. "No, I think I'd better," she decided.

"Right, Claire, but—I wish I could do more things for you."

"I know!"

He lifted her stiff, cold little body from the car. His hands under her arms, he held her on the running-board an instant, her eyes level with his. "Little sister—plucky little sister!" he sighed. He lowered her to the ground.

Claire knocked at the back door. To it came a bald, tired man, in an apron wet at the knees. The kitchen floor was soaped, and a scrubbing-brush rode amid the seas. A rather dirty child clung to his hand. "Trying to clean up, ma'am. Not very good at it. I hope you ain't the Cruelty to Children lady. Willy looks mussed, but fact is, I just can't get time to wash the clothes, but he means a terrible lot to me. What was it? Will you step in?"

Claire buttoned the child's rompers before she spoke. Then:

"Mr. Kloh, I want to be perfectly honest with you. I've had word from your wife. She's unhappy, and she loves and admires you more than any other man in the world, and I think she would come back—misses the child so."

The man wiped his reddened hands. "I don't know—— I don't wish her no harm. Trouble was, I'm kind of pokey. I guess I couldn't give her any good times. I used to try to go to dances with her,[234] but when I'd worked late, I'd get sleepy and—— She's a beautiful woman, smart 's a whip, and I guess I was too slow for her. No, she wouldn't never come back to me."

"She's out in front of the house now—waiting!"

"Great Cæsar's ghost, and the floor not scrubbed!" With a squawk of anxiety he leaped on the scrubbing-brush, and when Milt and Dlorus appeared at the door, Mr. Kloh and Miss Claire Boltwood were wiping up the kitchen floor.

Dlorus looked at them, arms akimbo, and sighed, "Hello, Johnny, my, ain't it nice to be back, oh, you had the sink painted, oh, forgive me, Johnny, I was a bad ungrateful woman, I don't care if you don't never take me to no more dances, hardly any, Willy come here, dear, oh, he is such a sweet child, my, his mouth is so dirty, will you forgive me, Johnny, is my overcoat in the moth-balls?"

When Mr. Kloh had gone off to the mill—thrice returning from the gate to kiss Dlorus and to thank her rescuers—Claire sat down and yawningly lashed off every inch of Dlorus's fair white skin:

"You're at it already; taking advantage of that good man's forgiveness, and getting lofty with him, and rather admiring yourself as a spectacular sinner. You are a lazy, ignorant, not very clean woman, and if you succeed in making Mr. Kloh and Willy happy, it will be almost too big a job for you. Now if I[235] come back from Seattle and find you misbehaving again——"

Dlorus broke down. "You won't, miss! And I will raise chickens, like he wanted, honest I will!"

"Then you may let me have a room to take a nap in, and perhaps Mr. Daggett could sleep in there on the sofa, and we'll get rested before we start back."

Both Milt and Dlorus meekly followed the boss.

It was noon before Milt and Claire woke, and discovered that Dlorus had prepared for them scrambled eggs and store celery, served on an almost clean table-cloth. Mr. Kloh came home for lunch, and while Dlorus sat on his lap in the living-room, and repeated that she had been a "bad, naughty, 'ittle dirl—what did the fellows say at the mill?" Milt and Claire sat dumpily on the back porch, regarding scenery which featured of seven tin cans, a broken patent washing-machine, and a rheumatic pear tree.

"I suppose we ought to start," groaned Claire.

"I have about as much nerve as a rabbit, and as much punch as a bale of hay," Milt admitted.

"We're like two children that have been playing too long."

"But don't want to go home!"

"Quite! Though I don't think much of your idea of a playhouse—those tin cans. But it's better than having to be grown-up."

In the midst of which chatter they realized that Mr. Henry B. Boltwood and Dr. Hooker Beach had come round the corner of the house, and were gaping at them.

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