Free Air

by Sinclair Lewis

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XXIV - Her Own People

MR. HENRY B. BOLTWOOD was decorously asleep in a chair in the observation car, and Claire, on the wide back platform, sat unmoving, apparently devoted to agriculture and mountain scenery. But it might have been noted that her hand clenched one of the wooden supports of her camp-stool, and that her hunched back did not move.

When she had turned to follow her father into the train, Milt had caught her shoulders and kissed her.

For half an hour that kiss had remained, a perceptible warm pressure on her lips. And for half an hour she had felt the relief of gliding through the mountains without the strain of piloting, the comfort of having the unseen, mysterious engineer up ahead automatically drive for her. She had caroled to her father about nearing the Pacific. Her nervousness had expressed itself in jerky gaiety.

But when he had sneaked away for a nap, and Claire could no longer hide from herself by a veil of chatter the big decision she had made on the station platform, then she was lonely and frightened—and very anxious to undecide the decision. She could not think clearly. She could see Milt Daggett only as a solemn young man in an inferior sweater, standing by the track in a melancholy autumnal light, waving to her as the train pulled out, disappearing in a dun obscurity, less significant than the station, the receding ties, or the porter who was, in places known only to his secretive self, concealing her baggage.

She could only mutter in growing panic, "I'm crazy. In-sane! Pledging myself to this boy before I know how he will turn out. Will he learn anything besides engineering? I know it—I do want to stroke his cheek and—his kiss frightened me, but—— Will I hate him when I see him with nice people? Can I introduce him to the Gilsons? Oh, I was mad; so wrought up by that idiotic chase with Dlorus, and so sure I was a romantic heroine and—— And I'm simply an indecisive girl in a realistic muddle!"

Threatened by darkness and the sinister evening chill of the mountains, with the train no longer cheerfully climbing the rocky ridge but rumbling and snorting in the defiles, and startling her with agitating forward leaps as though the brakes had let go, she could not endure the bleak platform, and even less could she endure sitting in the chair car, eyed by the smug tourists—people as empty of her romance as they were incapable of her sharp tragedy. She balanced forward to the vestibule. She stood in that cold, swaying, darkling place that was filled with the smell of rubber and metal and grease and the thunderous[244] clash of steel on steel; she tried to look out into the fleeing darkness; she tried to imagine that the train was carrying her away from the pursuing enemy—from her own weak self.

Her father came puffing and lip-pursing and jolly, to take her to dinner. Mr. Boltwood had no tearing meditations; he had a healthy interest in soup. But he glanced at her, across the bright, sleek dining-table; he seemed to study her; and suddenly Claire saw that he was a very wise man. His look hinted, "You're worried, my dear," but his voice ventured nothing beyond comfortable drawling stories to which she had only, from the depth of her gloomy brooding, to nod mechanically.

She got a great deal of satisfaction and horror out of watching two traveling-men after dinner. Milt had praised the race, and one of the two traveling-men, a slender, clear-faced youngster, was rather like Milt, despite plastered hair, a watch-chain slung diagonally across his waistcoat, maroon silk socks, and shoes of pearl buttons, gray tops, and patent-leather bottoms. The other man was a butter-ball. Both of them had harshly pompous voices—the proudly unlettered voices of the smoking compartment. The slender man was roaring:

"Yes, sir, he's got a great proposition there—believe me, he's got a great proposition—he's got one great little factory there, take it from me. He can[245] turn out toothpicks to compete with Michigan. He's simply piling up the shekels—why say, he's got a house with eighteen rooms—every room done different."

Claire wondered whether Milt, when the sting and faith of romance were blunted, would engage in Great Propositions, and fight for the recognition of his—toothpicks. Would his creations be favorites in the best lunch rooms? Would he pile up shekels?

Then her fretting was lost in the excitement of approaching Seattle and their host—Claire's cousin, Eugene Gilson, an outrageously prosperous owner of shingle-mills. He came from an old Brooklyn Heights family. He had married Eva Gontz of Englewood. He liked music and wrote jokey little letters and knew the addresses of all the best New York shops. He was of Her Own People, and she was near now to the security of his friendship, the long journey done.

Lights thicker and thicker—a factory illuminated by arc-lamps,—the baggage—the porter—the eager trail of people in the aisle—climbing down to the platform—red caps—passing the puffing engine which had brought them in—the procession to the gate—faces behind a grill—Eugene Gilson and Eva waving—kisses, cries of "How was the trip?" and "Oh! Had won-derful drive!"—the huge station, and curious waiting passengers, Jap coolies in a gang, lumbermen in corks—the Gilsons' quiet car, and baggage stowed away by the chauffeur instead of by their own tired[246] hands—streets strangely silent after the tumult of the train—Seattle and the sunset coast at last attained.

Claire had forgotten how many charming, most desirable things there were in the world. The Gilsons drove up Queen Anne Hill to a bay-fronting house on a breezy knob—a Georgian house of holly hedge, French windows, a terrace that suggested tea, and a great hall of mahogany and white enamel with the hint of roses somewhere, and a fire kindled in the paneled drawing-room to be seen beyond the hall. Warmth and softness and the Gilsons' confident affection wrapped her around; and in contented weariness she mounted to a bedroom of Bakst sketches, a four-poster, and a bedside table with a black and orange electric lamp and a collection of Arthur Symons' essays.

She sank by the bed, pitifully rubbed her cheek against the silk comforter that was primly awaiting her commands at the foot of the bed, and cried, "Oh, four-posters are necessary! I can't give them up! I won't! They—— No one has a right to ask me." She mentally stamped her foot. "I simply won't live in a shack and take in washing. It isn't worth it."

A bath, faintly scented, in a built-in tub in her own marble bathroom. A preposterously and delightfully enormous Turkish towel. One of Eva Gilson's foamy negligées. Slow exquisite dressing—not the scratchy hopping over ingrown dirt, among ingrown smells, of[247] a filthy small-hotel bedroom, but luxurious wandering over rugs velvety to her bare feet. A languid inspection of the frivolous colors and curves in the drawings by Bakst and George Plank and Helen Dryden. A glance at the richness of the toilet-table, at the velvet curtains that shut out the common world.

Expanding to the comfort as an orchid to cloying tropic airs, she drew on her sheerest chemise, her most frivolous silk stockings. In a dreaming enervated joy she saw how smooth were her arms and legs; she sleepily resented the redness of her wrists and the callouses of the texture of corduroy that scored her palms from holding the steering wheel.

Yes, she was glad that she had made the experiment—but gladder that she was safely in from the long dust-whitened way, back in her own world of beauty; and she couldn't imagine ever trying it again. To think of clumping out into that world of deliberate and brawling crudeness——

Of one Milt Daggett she didn't think at all.

Gorgeously sleepy—and gorgeously certain that by and by she would go, not to a stingy hotel bed, with hound-dog ribs to cut into her tired back, but to a feathery softness of slumber—she wavered down to the drawing-room, and on the davenport, by the fire, with Victoria chocolates by her elbow, and pillows behind her shoulders, she gossiped of her adventure, and asked for news of friends and kin back East.

Eugene and Eva Gilson asked with pyrotechnic merriness about the "funny people she must have met along the road." With a subdued, hidden unhappiness, Claire found that she could not mention Milt—that she was afraid her father would mention Milt—to these people who took it for granted that all persons who did not live in large houses and play good games of bridge were either "queer" or "common"; who believed that their West was desirable in proportion as it became like the East; and that they, though Westerners, were as superior to workmen with hard hands as was Brooklyn Heights itself.

Claire tried to wriggle out from under the thought of Milt while, with the Gilsons as the perfect audience, she improvised on the theme of wandering. With certain unintended exaggerations, and certain not quite accurate groupings of events, she described the farmers and cowpunchers, the incredible hotels and garages. Indeed they had become incredible to her own self. Obviously this silken girl couldn't possibly take seriously a Dlorus Kloh—or a young garage man who said "ain't."

Eva Gilson had been in Brooklyn within the month, and in a passion of remembrance of home, Claire cried, "Oh, do tell me about everybody."

"I had such a good time with Amy Dorrance," said Mrs. Gilson. "Of course Amy is a little dull, but she's such an awfully good sort and—— We did have the[249] jolliest party one afternoon. We went to lunch at the Ritz, and a matinée, and we saw such an interesting man—Gene is frightfully jealous when I rave about him—I'm sure he was a violinist—simply an exquisite thing he was—I wanted to kiss him. Gene will now say, 'Why didn't you?'"

And Gene said, "Well, why didn't you?" and Claire laughed, and her toes felt warm and pink and good, and she was perfectly happy, and she murmured, "It would be good to hear a decent violinist again. Oh! What had George Worlicht been doing, when you were home?"

"Don't you think Georgie is wonderful?" fluttered Mrs. Gilson. "He makes me rue my thirty-six sad years. I think I'll adopt him. You know, he almost won the tennis cup at Long Branch."

Georgie had a little mustache and an income, just enough income to support the little mustache, and he sang inoffensively, and was always winning tennis cups—almost—and he always said, at least once at every party, "The basis of savoir faire is knowing how to be rude to the right people." Fire-enamored and gliding into a perfumed haze of exquisite drowsiness, Claire saw Georgie as heroic and wise. But the firelight got into her eyes, and her lids wouldn't stay open, and in her ears was a soft humming as of a million bees in a distant meadow golden-spangled—and Gene was helping her upstairs; sleepiness submerged her like[250] bathing in sweet waters; she fumbled at buttons and hooks and stays, let things lie where they fell—and of all that luxury nothing was more pleasant than the knowledge that she did not have to take precautions against the rats, mice, cockroaches, and all their obscene little brothers which—on some far-off fantastic voyaging when she had been young and foolish—she seemed to remember having found in her own room. Then she was sinking into a bed like a tide of rainbow-colored foam, sinking deep, deep, deep——

And it was morning, and she perceived that the purpose of morning light was to pick out surfaces of mahogany and orange velvet and glass, and that only an idiot would ever leave this place and go about begging dirty garage men to fill her car with stinking gasoline and oil.

The children were at breakfast—children surely not of the same species as the smeary-cheeked brats she had seen tumbling by roadsides along the way—sturdy Mason, with his cap of curls, and Virginia, with bobbed ash-blond hair prim about her delicate face. They curtsied, and in voices that actually had intonations they besought her, "Oh, Cousin Claire, would you pleasssssse tell us about drive-to-the-coast?"

After breakfast, she went out on the terrace for the View.

In Seattle, even millionaires, and the I. W. W., and[251] men with red garters on their exposed shirt-sleeves who want to give you real estate, all talk about the View. The View is to Seattle what the car-service, the auditorium, the flivver-factory, or the price of coal is to other cities. At parties in Seattle, you discuss the question of whether the View of Lake Union or the View of the Olympics is the better, and polite office-managers say to their stenographers as they enter, "How's your View this morning?" All real-estate deeds include a patent on the View, and every native son has it as his soundest belief that no one in Tacoma gets a View of Mount Rainier.

Mrs. Gilson informed Claire that they had the finest View in Seattle.

Below Claire was the harbor, with docks thrust far out into the water, and steamers alive with smoke. Mrs. Gilson said they were Blue Funnel Liners, loading for Vladivostok and Japan. The names, just the names, shot into Claire's heart a wistful unexpressed desire that was somehow vaguely connected with a Milt Daggett who, back in the Middlewestern mud and rain, had longed for purple mountains and cherry blossoms and the sea. But she cast out the wish, and lifted her eyes to mountains across the sound—not purple mountains, but sheer silver streaked with black, like frozen surf on a desolate northern shore—the Olympics, two-score miles away.

Up there, one could camp, with a boy in a deteriorated[252] sweater singing as he watched the coffee——

Hastily she looked to the left, across the city, with its bright new skyscrapers, its shining cornices and masses of ranked windows, and the exclamation-point of the "tallest building outside of New York"—far livelier than her own rusty Brooklyn. Beyond the city was a dun cloud, but as she stared, far up in the cloud something crept out of the vapor, and hung there like a dull full moon, aloof, majestic, overwhelming, and she realized that she was beholding the peak of Mount Rainier, with the city at its foot like white quartz pebbles at the base of a tower.

A landing-stage for angels, she reflected.

It did seem larger than dressing-tables and velvet hangings and scented baths.

But she dragged herself from the enticing path of that thought, and sighed wretchedly, "Oh, yes, he would appreciate Rainier, but how—how would he manage a grape-fruit? I mustn't be a fool! I mustn't!" She saw that Mrs. Gilson was peeping at her, and she made herself say adequate things about the View before she fled inside—fled from her sputtering inquiring self.

In the afternoon they drove to Capitol Hill; they dropped in at various pretty houses and met the sort of people Claire knew back home. Between people they had Views; and the sensible Miss Boltwood, making a philosophic discovery, announced to herself,[253] "After all, I've seen just as much from this limousine as I would from a bone-breaking Teal bug. Silly to make yourself miserable to see things. Oh yes, I will go wandering some more, but not like a hobo. But—— What can I say to him? Good heavens, he may be here any time now, with our car. Oh, why—why—why was I insane on that station platform?"

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