Free Air

by Sinclair Lewis

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XXVII - The Viciousness of Nice Things

WHAT did you think of my nice Daggett boy?" Claire demanded of Eva Gilson, the moment bruncheon was over.

"Which one was—— Oh, the boy you met on the road? Why, really, I didn't notice him particularly. I'd rather fancied from the way you referred to him that he was awfully jolly and forceful, but rather crude. But I didn't notice him at all. He seemed perfectly well-bred, but slightly heavy."

"No, he isn't that—— He—— Why did you lead spades?" reflected Claire.

They were in the drawing-room, resting after the tact and tumult of the bruncheon. Claire had been here long enough now for the Gilsons to forget her comfortably, and be affectionate and quarrelsome and natural, and to admit by their worrying that even in their exalted social position there were things to fuss about.

"I do think we ought to have invited Belle Torrens," fretted Mrs. Gilson. "We've simply got to have her here soon."

Mr. Gilson speculated intensely, "But she's the dullest soul on earth, and her husband spends all his[280] spare time in trying to think up ways of doing me dirt in business. Oh, by the way, did you get the water tap in the blue room fixed? It's dripping all the time."

"No, I forgot it."

"Well, I do wish you'd have it attended to. It simply drips all the time."

"I know. I intended to 'phone the plumber—— Can't you 'phone him tomorrow, from the office?"

"No, I haven't time to bother with it. But I do wish you would. It keeps on dripping——"

"I know, it doesn't seem to stop. Well, you remind me of it in the morning."

"I'm afraid I'll forget. You better make a note of it. If it keeps on dripping that way, it's likely to injure something. And I do wish you'd tell the Jap not to put so much parsley in the omelet. And I say, how would an omelet be with a butter sauce over it?"

"Oh, no, I don't think so. An omelet ought to be nice and dry. Butter makes it so greasy—besides, with the price of butter——"

"But there's a richness to butter—— You'd better make a note about the tap dripping in the blue room right now, before you forget it. Oh! Why in heaven's name did we have Johnny Martin here? He's dull as ditchwater——"

"I know, but—— It is nice to go out to his place on the Point. Oh, Gene, I do wish you'd try and[281] remember not to talk about your business so much. You and Mr. Martin were talking about the price of lumber for at least half an hour——"

"Nothing of the kind. We scarcely mentioned it. Oh! What car are you going to use this afternoon? If we get out to the Barnetts', I thought we might use the limousine—— Or no, you'll probably go out before I do, I have to read over some specifications, and I promised to give Will a lift, couldn't you take the Loco, maybe you might drive yourself, no, I forgot, the clutch is slipping a little, well, you might drive out and send the car back for me—still, there wouldn't hardly be time——"

Listening to them as to a play, Claire suddenly desired to scream, "Oh, for heaven's sake quit fussing! I'm going up and drown myself in the blue-room tap! What does it matter! Walk! Take a surface car! Don't fuss so!"

Her wrath came from her feeling of guilt. Yes, Milt had been commonplace. Had she done this to him? Had she turned his cheerful ignorances into a careful stupor? And she felt stuffy and choking and overpacked with food. She wanted to be out on the road, clear-headed, forcing her way through, an independent human being—with Milt not too far behind.

Mrs. Gilson was droning, "I do think Mattie Vincent is so nice."

[282]"Rather dull I'd call her," yawned Mr. Gilson.

Mattie was the seventh of their recent guests whom he had called dull by now.

"Not at all—oh, of course she doesn't dance on tables and quote Maeterlinck, but she does have an instinct for the niceties and the proprieties—her little house is so sweet—everything just exactly right—it may be only a single rose, but always chosen so carefully to melt into the background; and such adorable china—I simply die of envy every time I see her Lowestoft plates. And such a quiet way of reproving any bad taste—the time that crank university professor was out there, and spoke of the radical labor movement, and Mattie just smiled at him and said, 'If you don't mind, let's not drag filthy lumberjacks into the drawing-room—they'd hate it just as much as we would, don't you think, perhaps?'"

"Oh, damn nice china! Oh, let's hang all spinsters who are brightly reproving," Claire was silently raging. "And particularly and earnestly confound all nicety and discretion of living."

She tried to break the spell of the Gilsons' fussing. She false-heartedly fawned upon Mr. Gilson, and inquired:

"Is there anything very exciting going on at the mills, Gene?"

"Exciting?" asked Mr. Gilson incredulously. "Why, how do you mean?"

[283]"Don't you find business exciting? Why do you do it then?"

"Oh, wellllll—— Of course—— Oh, yes, exciting in a way. Well—— Well, we've had a jolly interesting time making staves for candy pails—promises to be wonderfully profitable. We have a new way of cutting them. But you wouldn't be interested in the machinery."

"Of course not. You don't bore Eva with your horrid, headachy business-problems, do you?" Claire cooed, with low cunning.

"Indeed no. Don't think a chap ought to inflict his business on his wife. The home should be a place of peace."

"Yes," said Claire.

But she wasn't thinking "Yes." She was thinking, "Milt, what worries me now isn't how I can risk letting the 'nice people' meet you. It's how I can ever waste you on the 'nice people.' Oh, I'm spoiled for cut-glass-and-velvet afternoons. Eternal spiritual agony over blue-room taps is too high a price even for four-poster beds. I want to be driving! hiking! living!"

That afternoon, after having agreed that Mr. Johnny Martin was a bore, Mr. and Mrs. Gilson decided to run out to the house of Mr. Johnny Martin. They bore along the lifeless Claire.

Mr. Martin was an unentertaining bachelor who[284] entertained. There were a dozen supercilious young married people at his bayside cottage when the Gilsons arrived. Among them were two eyebrow-arching young matrons whom Claire had not met—Mrs. Corey and Mrs. Betz.

"We've all heard of you, Miss Boltwood," said Mrs. Betz. "You come from the East, don't you?"

"Yes," fluttered Claire, trying to be cordial.

Mrs. Corey and Mrs. Betz looked at each other in a motionless wink, and Mrs. Corey prodded:

"From New York?"

"No. Brooklyn." Claire tried not to make it too short.

"Oh." The tacit wink was repeated. Mrs. Corey said brightly—much too brightly—"I was born in New York. I wonder if you know the Dudenants?"

Now Claire knew the Dudenants. She had danced with that young ass Don Dudenant a dozen times. But the devil did enter into her and possess her, and, to Eva Gilson's horror, Claire said stupidly, "No-o, but I think I've heard of them."

The condemning wink was repeated.

"I hear you've been doing such interesting things—motoring and adventuring—you must have met some terrible people along the way," fished Mrs. Betz.

"Yes, everybody does seem to feel that way. But I'm afraid I found them terribly nice," flared Claire.

"I always say that common people can be most[285] agreeable," Mrs. Corey patronized. Before Claire could kill her—there wasn't any homicidal weapon in sight except a silver tea-strainer—Mrs. Corey had pirouetted on, "Though I do think that we're much too kind to workmen and all—the labor situation is getting to be abominable here in the West, and upon my word, to keep a maid nowadays, you have to treat her as though she were a countess."

"Why shouldn't maids be like countesses? They're much more important," said Claire sweetly.

It cannot be stated that Claire had spent any large part of her time in reading Karl Marx, leading syndicalist demonstrations, or hemming red internationalist flags, but at this instant she was a complete revolutionist. She could have executed Mrs. Corey and pretty Mrs. Betz with zeal; she disliked the entire bourgeoisie; she looked around for a Jap boy to call "comrade" and she again thought about the possibilities of the tea-strainer for use in assassination. She stolidly wore through the combined and exclamatory explanations of Mrs. Corey, Mrs. Betz, Mrs. Gilson, and Mr. Johnny Martin about the inherent viciousness of all maids, and when the storm was over, she said in a manner of honey and syrup:

"You were speaking of the Dudenants, weren't you, Mrs. Corey? I do remember them now. Poor Don Dudenant, isn't it a pity he's such a fool? His father is really a very decent old bore."

[286]"I," observed Mrs. Corey, in prim horror, "regard the Dudenants as extremely delightful people. I fancy we must be thinking of different families. I mean the Manhattan Dudenants, not the Brooklyn family."

"Oh, yes, I meant the Manhattan family, too—the one that made its fortune selling shoddy woolens in the Civil War," caressed Claire.

Right there, her welcome by Mrs. Corey and Mrs. Betz ceased; and without any of the unhappiness which the thought would have caused her three months before, Claire reflected, "How they hate me!"

The Gilsons had a number of thoughts upon the subject of tact to express to Claire on the way home. But she, who had always smiled, who had been the obedient guest, shrugged and snapped, "They're idiots, those young women. They're impertinent shopgirls in good frocks. I like your Seattle. It's a glorious city. And I love so many of the fine, simple, real people I've met here. I admire your progress. I do know how miraculously you've changed it from a mining camp. But for heaven's sake don't forget the good common hardiness of the miners. Somehow, London social distinctions seem ludicrous in American cities that twenty years ago didn't have much but board sidewalks and saloons. I don't care whether it's Seattle or Minneapolis or Omaha or Denver, I refuse to worry about the Duchess of Corey and the Baroness Betz and all the other wonderful imitations[287] of gilt. When a pair of finishing-school flappers like Betz and Corey try to impress me with their superiority to workmen, and their extreme aristocracy and Easternness, they make me tired. I am the East!"

She had made peace with the Gilsons by night; she had been reasonably repentant about not playing the game of her hosts; but inside her eager heart she snuggled a warm thought. She remembered how gaily she had once promised, out on the road, to come to Milt's room and cook for him. She thought of it with homesick desire. His room probably wasn't particularly decorative, and she doubted his having an electric range, but it would be fun to fry eggs again, to see him fumbling with the dish-washing, to chatter and plan golden futures, and not worry about the opinions of Mrs. Corey and Mrs. Betz.

The next afternoon the limousine was not busy and she borrowed it, with the handsome Greek chauffeur.

She gave him an address not far from the university.

He complained, "Pardon me, miss, but I think you have the wrong number. That block is a low quarter."

"Probably! But that's the right number!"

He raised his Athenian eyebrows, and she realized what a mistake she had made in not bringing the lethal tea-strainer along. When they had stopped in front of a cheap candy-store, he opened the door of[288] the car with such frigid reserve that she thought seriously about slapping him.

She climbed the stingy, flapping stairs, and knocked at the first door in the upper hall. It was opened by a large apron, to which a sleepy woman was an unimportant attachment, and out of the mass of apron and woman came a yawning, "Mr. Daggett's room is down the hall on the right."

Claire knocked at a door which had at various epochs been blue, yellow, and pink, and now was all three. No answer. She tried the knob, went in.

She could not tell whether it was the barrenness of the room, or Milt's carefulness, that caught her. The uncarpeted boards of the floor were well swept. He had only one plate, one spoon, but they were scoured, and put away on newspaper-covered shelves in a cupboard made of a soap-box. Behind a calico curtain was his new suit, dismayingly neat on its hanger. On the edge of the iron sink primly washed and spread out to dry, was a tattered old rag. At the sight of it, at the thought of Milt solemnly washing dishes, the tears began to creep to her eyes.

There was but one picture in the room—a half-tone of a girl, clipped from a magazine devoted to actresses. The name was cut off. As she wondered at it, Claire saw that the actress was very much like herself.

The only other ornament was a papier-mâché figure of a cat, a cat reminiscent of the Lady Vere de Vere.[289] Claire picked it up. On the bottom was the price-mark—three cents.

It was the price-mark that pierced her. She flung across the room, dropped on his creaky cot-bed, howled, "Oh, I've been a beast—a beast—a beast! All the pretty things—limousines and marble baths—thinking so much of them, and not wanting them for him! And he with so little, with just nothing—he that would appreciate jolly things so much—here in this den, and making it as tolerable as he can—and me half ashamed of him instead of fighting for him—— I belong with Corey and Betz. Oh, I'm so ashamed, so bitterly ashamed."

She patted his bed smooth with nervous eager fingers.

She scraped a pin-point of egg-yolk off a platter.

Before she had been home five minutes she had written a note asking him to tea for next day.

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