Free Air

by Sinclair Lewis

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XXVI - A Class in Engineering and Omelettes

THE one thing of which Milt Daggett was certain was that now he had managed to crawl into the engineering school, he must get his degree in mechanical engineering. He was older than most of his classmates. He must hurry. He must do four years' work in two.

There has never been a Freshman, not the most goggle-eyed and earnest of them, who has seen less of classmates, thought less about "outside activities," more grimly centered the universe about his work.

Milt had sold his garage, by mail, to Ben Sittka and Heinie Rauskukle. He had enough money to get through two years, with economy. His life was as simple and dull as it had been in Schoenstrom. He studied while he cooked his scrappy meals; he pinned mathematical formulæ and mechanical diagrams on the wall, and pored over them while he was dressing—or while he was trying to break in the new shoes, which were beautiful, squeaky, and confoundedly tight.

He was taking French and English and "composition-writing" in addition to engineering, and he made out a schedule of life as humorlessly as a girl grind[271] who intends to be a Latin teacher. When he was not at work, or furiously running and yanking chest-weights in the gymnasium, he was attending concerts, lectures.

Studying the life about him, he had discovered that the best way to save time was to avoid the lazy friendships of college; the pipe-smoking, yawning, comfortable, rather heavy, altogether pleasant wondering about "what'll we do next?" which occupies at least four hours a day for the average man in college. He would have liked it, as he had liked long talks about nothing with Bill McGolwey at the Old Home Lunch. But he couldn't afford it. He had to be ready to——

That was the point at which his reflections always came up with a jolt. He was quite clear about the method of getting ready, but he hadn't the slightest idea of what he was getting ready for. The moment he had redecided to marry Claire, he saw that his only possible future would be celibate machinery-installing in Alaska; and the moment he was content with the prospect of an engineer's camp in Alaskan wilds, his thoughts went crazily fluttering after Claire.

Despite his aloofness, Milt was not unpopular in his class. The engineers had few of them the interest in dances, athletics, college journalism, which distinguished the men in the academic course. They were older, and more conscious of a living to earn. And Milt's cheerful, "How's the boy?" his manner[272] of waving his hand—as though to a good customer leaving the Red Trail Garage with the generator at last tamed—indicated that he was a "good fellow."

One group of collegians Milt did seek. It is true that he had been genuine in scorning social climbers. But it is also true that the men whom he sought to know were the university smart set. Their satisfaction in his allegiance would have been lessened, however, had they known how little he cared for what they thought of him, and with what cruel directness he was using them as models for the one purpose of pleasing Miss Claire Boltwood.

The American state universities admit, in a pleased way, that though Yale and Harvard and Princeton may be snobbish, the state universities are the refuge of a myth called "college democracy." But there is no university near a considerable city into which the inheritors of the wealth of that city do not carry all the local social distinctions. Their family rank, their place in the unwritten peerage, determines to which fraternity they shall be elected, and the fraternity determines with whom—men and girls—they shall be intimate. The sons and daughters of Seattle and Tacoma, the scions of old families running in an unbroken line clear back to 1880, were amiable to poor outsiders from the Yakima valley and the new claims of Idaho, but they did not often invite them to their homes on the two hills and the Boulevard.

[273]Yet it was these plutocrats whom Milt followed; they whose boots and table manners, cigarettes and lack of interest in theology, he studied. He met them in his English class. He remarked "Hello, Smith," and "Mornin', Jones," as though he liked them but didn't care a hang whether they liked him. And by and by he drifted into their fraternity dwelling-house, with a question about the next day's assignment, and met their friends. He sat pipe-smoking, silent, cheerful, and they seemed to accept him. Whenever one of them felt that Milt was intruding, and asked impertinent questions in the manner of a Pullman porter at a Darktown ball, Milt had a peculiar level look which had been known to generate courtesy even in the offspring of a million dollars. They found that he knew more about motor-cars than any of them, and as motor-cars were among their greater gods, they considered him wise. He was incomparably simple and unpretentious; they found his presence comfortable.

But there is a question as to what they would have thought had they known that, lying awake in the morning, Milt unsmilingly repeated:

"Hair always straight down at the back. Never rounded. Nix on clippers over the ears.

"Matisse is a popular nut artist. Fashionable for the swells to laugh at him, and the fellows on the college papers to rave about him.

[274]"Blinx and Severan the swellest—the smartest haberdashery in the city.

"The one way to get in Dutch is to mention labor leaders.

"Never say 'Pleased to meet you.' Just look about halfway between bored and tol'able and say, 'How do you do?'"

All these first three weeks of his life in Seattle, he had seen Claire only on his first call. Twice he had telephoned to her. On one of these high occasions she had invited him to accompany the family to the theater—which meant to the movies—and he had wretchedly refused; the other time she had said that she might stay in Seattle all winter, and she might go any day, and they "must be sure to have that good long walk"; and he had said "oh yes," ten or twelve unhappy times, and had felt very empty as he hung up the receiver.

Then she wrote to invite him to late Sunday breakfast at the Gilsons'—they made a function of it, and called it bruncheon. The hour was given as ten-thirty; most people came at noon; but Milt arrived at ten-thirty-one, and found only a sleepy butler in sight.

He waited in the drawing-room for five minutes, feeling like a bill-collector. Into the room vaulted a medium-sized, medium-looking, amiable man, Eugene[275] Gilson, babbling, "Oh, I say, so sorry to keep you waiting, Mr. Daggett. Rotten shame, do come have a bun or something, frightfully informal these bruncheons, play auction?"

"Zallright—no," said Milt.

The host profusely led him to a dining-room where—in English fashion, or something like English fashion, or anyway a close approximation to the fictional pictures of English fashion—kidneys and sausages and omelets waited in dishes on the side-board. Mr. Gilson poured coffee, and chanted:

"Do try the kidneys. They're usually very fair. Miss Boltwood tells me that you were very good to her on the trip. Must have been jolly trip. You going to be in town some time, oh yes, Claire said you were in the university, engineering, wasn't it? have you ever seen our lumbermills, do drop around some—— Try the omelet before the beastly thing gets cold, do you mind kicking that button, we'll have some more omelet in—any time at the mill and I'll be glad to have some one show you through, how did you find the roads along the Red Trail?"

"Why, pretty fair," said Milt.

Into the room precipitated Mrs. Gilson, in a smile, a super-sweater, and a sports skirt that would have been soiled by any variety of sport more violent than pinochle, and she was wailing as she came:

[276]"We're disgraced, Gene, is this Mr. Daggett? how do you do, so good of you to come, do try the kidneys, they're usually quite decent, are the omelets warm, you might ring for some more, Gene, for heaven's sake give me some coffee, Miss Boltwood will be right down, Mr. Daggett, she told us how fortunate they were that they met you on the road, did you like the trip, how were the roads?"

"Why, they were pretty good," said Milt.

Claire arrived, fresh and serene in white taffeta, and she cried prettily, "I ought to have known that you'd be prompt even if no one else in the world is, so glad you came, have you tried the kidneys, and do have an—oh, I see you have tried the omelets, how goes the work at the university?"

"Why, fine," said Milt.

He ate stolidly, and looked pleased, and sneaked in a glance at his new (and still tight and still squeaky) tan boots to make sure that they were as well polished as they had seemed at home.

From nowhere appeared a bustling weighty woman, purring, "Hello, hello, hello, is it possible that you're all up—— Mr. Daggett. Yes, do lead me to the kidneys."

And a man with the gray hair of a grandfather and the giggle of a cash-girl bounced in clamoring, "Mornin'—expected to have bruncheon alone—do we have some bridge? Oh, good morning, Mr. Daggett,[277] how do you like Seattle? Oh, thanks so much, yes, just two."

Then Milt ceased to keep track of the conversation, which bubbled over the omelets, and stewed over the kidneys, and foamed about the coffee, and clashed above a hastily erected bridge table, and altogether sounded curiously like four cars with four quite different things the matter with them all being tried out at once in a small garage. People flocked in, and nodded as though they knew one another too well to worry about it. They bowed to him charmingly, and instantly forgot him for the kidneys and sausages. He sat looking respectable and feeling lonely, by a cup of coffee, till Claire—dropping the highly unreal smile with which she had been listening to the elderly beau's account of a fishing-trip he hadn't quite got around to taking—slipped into a chair beside him and begged, "Are they looking out for you, Milt?"

"Oh yes, thank you."

"You haven't been to see me."

"Oh no, but—— Working so darn hard."

"What a strikingly original reason! But have you really?"


Suddenly he wanted—eternal man, forever playing confidential small boy to the beloved—to tell her about his classes and acquaintances; to get pity for his bare room and his home-cooking. But round them blared[278] the brazen interest in kidneys, and as Claire glanced up with much brightness at another arrival, Milt lost momentum, and found that there was absolutely nothing in the world he could say to her.

He made a grateful farewell to the omelets and kidneys, and escaped.

He walked many miles that day, trying to remember how Claire looked.

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