Free Air

by Sinclair Lewis

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XXXIII - Tooth-Mug Tea

MY friend Mr. McGolwey—I knew him in Schoenstrom—come on to Seattle for a while. Bill, these are some people I met along the road," Milt grumbled.

"Glad to meet 'em. Have a chair. Have two chairs! Say, Milt, y'ought to have more chairs if you're going to have a bunch of swells coming to call on you. Ha, ha, ha! Say, I guess I better pike out and give the folks a chance to chin with you," Bill fondly offered.

"Oh, sit down," Milt snapped at him.

They all sat down, four on the bed; and Milt's inner ear heard a mute snicker from the Gilsons and Saxton. He tried to talk. He couldn't. Bill looked at him and, perceiving the dumbness, gallantly helped out:

"So you met the kid on the road, eh? Good scout, Milt is. We always used to say at Schoenstrom that he was the best darn hand at fixing a flivver in seven townships."

"So you knew Mr. Daggett at home? Now isn't that nice," said Mrs. Gilson.

"Knew him? Saaaaay, Milt and I was brung up[346] together. Why, him and I have bummed around together, and worked on farms, summers, and fished for bull-heads—— Ever catch a bull-head? Damnedest slipperiest fish you ever saw, and got horns that sting the stuffin's out of you and—— Say, I wonder if Milt's told you about the time we had at a barn-dance once? There was a bunch of hicks there, and I says, 'Say, kid, lez puncture their tires, and hide back of the manure pile, and watch the fun when they come out.' I guess maybe I was kind of stewed a little, tell the truth, but course Milt he don't drink much, hardly at all, nice straight kid if I do say so——"

"Bill!" Milt ordered. "We must have some tea. Here's six-bits. You run down to the corner grocery and get some tea and a little cream. Oh, you better buy three-four cups, too. Hustle now, son!"

"Attaboy! Yours to command, ladies and gents, like the fellow says!" Bill boomed delightedly. He winked at Jeff Saxton, airily spun his broken hat on his dirty forefinger, and sauntered out.

"Charming fellow. A real original," crooned Mrs. Gilson.

"Did he know your friend Mr. Pinky?" asked Saxton.

Before Milt could answer, Claire rose from the bed, inspected the Gilsons and Jeff with cold dislike, and said quietly to Milt, "The poor dear thing—he was dreadfully embarrassed. It's so good of you to[347] be nice to him. I believe in being loyal to your old friends."

"Oh, so do I!" babbled Mrs. Gilson. "It's just too splendid. And we must do something for him. I'm going to invite Mr. Daggett and Mr.—Mr. McGollups, was it?—to dinner this evening. I do want to hear him tell about your boyhood. It must have been so interesting."

"It was," mused Milt. "It was poor and miserable. We had to work hard—we had to fight for whatever education we got—we had no one to teach us courtesy."

"Oh now, with your fine old doctor father? Surely he was an inspiration?" Jeff didn't, this time, trouble to hide the sneer.

"Yes. He was. He gave up the chance to be a rich loafer in order to save farmers' babies for fees that he never got."

"I'm sure he did. I wish I'd known him. We need to know men like that in this pink-frosting playing at living we have in cities," Claire said sweetly—not to Milt but to Jeff.

Mrs. Gilson had ignored them, waiting with the patience of a cat at a mouse-hole, and she went on, "But you haven't said you'd come, this evening. Do say you will. I don't suppose Mr. McGollups will care to dress for dinner?"

With saccharin devotion Milt yearned back, "No,[348] Mrs. Gilson. No. Mr. McGolwey won't care to dress. He's eccentric."

"But you'll make him come?"

Milt was tactfully beginning to refuse when Gene Gilson at last exploded, turned purple, covered his dripping, too-red lips with his handkerchief.

Then, abruptly, Milt hurled at Mrs. Gilson, "All right. We'll come. Bill'll be awfully funny. He's never been out of a jerkwater burg in his life, hardly. He's an amusing cuss. He thinks I'm smart! He loves me like a dog. Oh, he's rich! Ha, ha, ha!"

Milt might have gone on ... if he had, Mr. and Mrs. Gilson would have gone away, much displeased. But Bill arrived, with some of the worst tea in the world, and four cups tastefully done in cupids' heads and much gilt.

Milt made tea, ignoring them, while Bill entertained the Gilsons and Saxtons with Rabelaisian stories of threshing-time when shirts prickly with chaff and gritty with dust stuck to sweat-dripping backs; of the "funny thing" of Milt and Bill being hired to move a garbage-pile and "swiping" their employer's "mushmelons"; of knotting shirts at the swimming-hole so that the bawling youngsters had to "chaw beef"; of drinking beer in the livery-stable at Melrose; of dropping the water-pitcher from a St. Klopstock hotel window upon the head of the "constabule" and escaping from him across the lean-to roof.

[349]Mrs. Gilson encouraged him; Bill sat with almost closed eyes, glorying in the saga of small-town life; Saxton and Gilson did not conceal their contemptuous grins.

But Claire—— After nervously rubbing the tips of her thumbs with flickering agitated fingers, she had paid no attention to Bill and the revelation of Milt's rustic life; she had quietly gone to Milt, to help him prepare the scanty tea.

She whispered, "Never mind, dear. I don't care. It was all twice as much fun as being wheeled in lacy prams by cranky nurses, as Jeff and I were. But I know how you feel. Are you ashamed of having been a prairie pirate?"

"No, I'm not! We were wild kids—we raised a lot of Cain—but I'm glad we did."

"So am I. I couldn't stand it if you were ashamed. Listen to me, and remember little Claire's words of wisdom. These fools are trying—oh, they're so obvious!—they're trying to make me feel that the prim Miss Boltwood of Brooklyn Heights is a stranger to you. Well, they're succeeding in making me a stranger—to them!"

"Claire! Dear! You don't mind Bill?"

"Yes. I do. And so do you. You've grown away from him."

"I don't know but—— Today has been quite a test."

"Yes. It has. Because if I can stand your friend Mr. McGolwey——"

"Then you do care!"

"Perhaps. And if I think that he's, oh, not much good, and I remember that for a long time you just had him to play with, then I'm all the more anxious to make it up to you."

"Don't be sorry for me! I can't stand that! After all, it was a good town, and good folks——"

"No! No! I'm not sorry for you! I just mean, you couldn't have had so terribly much fun, after you were eighteen or so. Schoenstrom must have been a little dull, after very many years there. This stuff about the charm of backwoods villages—the people that write it seem to take jolly good care to stay in Long Island suburbs!"

"Claire!" He was whispering desperately, "The tea's most done. Oh, my dear. I'm crazy with this puttering around, trying to woo you and having to woo the entire Gilson tribe. Let's run away!"

"No; first I'm going to convince them that you are—what I know you are."

"But you can't."

"Huh! You wait! I've thought of the most beautiful, beastly cruel plan for the reduction of social obesity——"

Then she was jauntily announcing, "Tea, my dears. Jeff, you get the tooth-mug. Isn't this jolly!"

[351]"Yes. Oh yes. Very jolly!" Jeff was thoroughly patronizing, but she didn't look offended. She made them drink the acid tea, and taste the chalk-like bread and butter sandwiches. She coaxed Bill to go on with his stories, and when the persistent Mrs. Gilson again asked the pariahs to come to dinner, Claire astonished Milt, and still more astonished Mrs. Gilson, by begging, "Oh yes, please do come, Milt."

He consented, savagely.

"But first," Claire added to Mrs. Gilson, "I want us to take the boys to—— Oh, I have the bulliest idea. Come, everybody. We're going riding."

"Uh, where——?" hinted Mr. Gilson.

"That's my secret. Come!"

Claire pranced to the door, herded all of them down to the limousine, whispered an address to the chauffeur.

Milt didn't care much for that ride. Bill was somewhat too evidently not accustomed to limousines. He wiped his shoes, caked with red mud, upon the seat-cushions, and apologized perspiringly. He said, "Gee whillikens, that's a dandy idee, telephone to bawl the shuffer out with," and "Are them flowers real, the bokay in the vase?"

But the Gilsons and Jeff Saxton were happy about it all—till the car turned from a main thoroughfare upon a muddy street of shacks that clung like goats to the sides of a high cut, a street unchanged from the pioneer days of Seattle.

[352]"Good heavens, Claire, you aren't taking us to see Aunt Hatty, are you?" wailed Mrs. Gilson.

"Oh yes, indeed. I knew the boys would like to meet her."

"No, really, I don't think——"

"Eva, my soul, Jeff and you planned our tea party today, and assured me I'd be so interested in Milt's bachelor apartment—— By the way, I'd been up there already, so it wasn't entirely a surprise. It's my turn to lead." She confided to Milt, "Dear old Aunt Hatty is related to all of us. She's Gene's aunt, and my fourth cousin, and I think she's distantly related to Jeff. She came West early, and had a hard time, but she's real Brooklyn Heights—and she belongs to Gramercy Park and North Washington Square and Rittenhouse Square and Back Bay, too, though she has got out of touch a little. So I wanted you to meet her."

Milt wondered what unperceived bag of cement had hardened the faces of Saxton and the Gilsons.

Silent save for polite observations of Claire upon tight skirts and lumbering, the merry company reached the foot of a lurching flight of steps that scrambled up a clay bank to a cottage like a hen that has set too long. Milt noticed that Mrs. Gilson made efforts to remain in the limousine when it stopped, and he caught Gilson's mutter to his wife, "No, it's Claire's turn. Be a sport, Eva."

[353]Claire led them up the badly listed steps to an unpainted porch on which sat a little old lady, very neat, very respectable, very interested, and reflectively holding in one ivory hand a dainty handkerchief and a black clay pipe.

"Hello, Claire, my dear. You've broken the relatives' record—you've called twice in less than a year," said the little old lady.

"How do you do, Aunt Harriet," remarked Mrs. Gilson, with great lack of warmth.

"Hello, Eva. Sit down on the edge of the porch. Those chickens have made it awful dirty, though, haven't they? Bring out some chairs. There's two chairs that don't go down under you—often." Aunt Harriet was very cheerful.

The group lugubriously settled in a circle upon an assemblage of wind-broken red velvet chairs and wooden stools. They resembled the aftermath of a funeral on a damp day.

Claire was the cheerful undertaker, Mrs. Gilson the grief-stricken widow.

Claire waved at Milt and conversed with Aunt Hatty in a high brisk voice: "This is the nice boy I met on the road that I think I told you about, Cousin Hatty."

The little old lady screwed up the delicate skin about her eyes, examined Milt, and cackled, "Boy, there's something wrong here. You don't belong with[354] my family. Why, you look like an American. You haven't got an imitation monocle, and I bet you can't talk with a New York-London accent. Why, Claire, I'm ashamed of you for bringing a human being into the Boltwood-Gilson-Saxton tomb and expecting——"

Then was the smile of Mrs. Gilson lost forever. It was simultaneously torpedoed, mined, scuttled, and bombed. It went to the bottom without a ripple, while Mrs. Gilson snapped, "Aunt Hatty, please don't be vulgar."

"Me?" croaked the little old lady. She puffed at her pipe, and dropped her elbows on her knees. "My, ain't it hard to please some folks."

"Cousin Hatty, I want Milt to know about our families. I love the dear old stories," Claire begged prettily.

Mrs. Gilson snarled. "Claire, really——"

"Oh, do shut up, Eva, and don't be so bossy!" yelped the dear little old lady, in sudden and dismaying rage. "I'll talk if I want to. Have they been bullying you, Claire? Or your boy? I tell you, boy, these families are fierce. I was brought up in Brooklyn—went through all the schools—used to be able to misplay the piano and mispronounce French with the best of 'em. Then Gene's pa and I came West together—he had an idea he'd get rich robbing the Injuns of their land. And we went broke. I took in washing. I learned a lot. I learned a Gilson was[355] just the same common stuff as a red-shirt miner, when he was up against it. But Gene's pa succeeded—there was something about practically stealing a fur schooner—but I never was one to tattle on my kin. Anyway, by the time Gene come along, his pa was rich, and that means aristocratic.

"This aristocracy west of Pittsburgh is just twice as bad as the snobbery in Boston or New York, because back there, the families have had their wealth long enough—some of 'em got it by stealing real estate in 1820, and some by selling Jamaica rum and niggers way back before the Revolutionary War—they've been respectable so long that they know mighty well and good that nobody except a Britisher is going to question their blue blood—and oh my, what good blueing third-generation money does make. But out here in God's Country, the marquises of milling and the barons of beef are still uneasy. Even their pretty women, after going to the best hair-dressers and patronizing the best charities, sometimes get scared lest somebody think they haven't either brains or breeding.

"So they're nasty to all low pussons like you and me, to make sure we understand how important they are. But lands, I know 'em, boy. I'm kept pensioned up here, out of the way, but I read the social notes in the papers and I chuckle—— When there's a big reception and I read about Mrs. Vogeland's pearls, and[356] her beautiful daughter-in-law, I remember how she used to run a boarding-house for miners——

"Well, I guess it's just as shoddy in the East if you go far enough back. Claire, you're a nice comforting body, and I hate to say it, but the truth is, your great-grandfather was an hostler, and made his first money betting on horses. Now, my, I oughtn't to tell that. Do you mind, dearie?"

"Not a bit. Isn't it delightful that this is such a democratic country, with no castes," said Claire.

At this, the first break in the little old lady's undammable flood, Mrs. Gilson sprang up, yammering, "The rest of you may stay as long as you like, but if I'm to be home in time to dress for dinner——"

"Yes, and I must be going," babbled Saxton.

Milt noted that his lower lip showed white tooth-marks.

It must be admitted that all of them rather ignored the little old lady for a moment. Milt was apologetically hinting, "I don't really think Bill and I'd better come to dinner this evening, Mrs. Gilson. Thanks a lot but—— It's kind of sudden."

Claire again took charge. "Not at all, Milt. Of course you're coming. It was Eva herself who invited you. I'm sure she'll be delighted."

"Charmed," said Mrs. Gilson, with the expression of one who has swallowed castor oil and doubts the unity of the universe.

There was a lack of ease about the farewells to Aunt Harriet. As they all turned away she beckoned Milt and murmured, "Did I raise the dickens? I tried to. It's the only solace besides smoking that a moral old lady can allow herself, after she gets to be eighty-two and begins to doubt everything they used to teach her. Come and see me, boy. Now get out, and, boy, beat up Gene Gilson. Don't be scared of his wife's hoity-toity ways. Just sail in."

"I will," said Milt.

He had one more surprise before he reached the limousine.

Bill McGolwey, who had sat listening to everything and scratching his cheek in a puzzled way, seized Milt's sleeve and rumbled:

"Good-by, old hoss. I'm not going to butt in on your game and get you in Dutch. Gosh, I never supposed you had enough class to mingle with elittys like this gang, but I know when I'm in wrong. You were too darn decent to kick me out. Do it myself. You're best friend I ever had and—— Good luck, old man! God bless you!"

Bill was gone, running, stumbling, fleeing past Aunt Harriet's cottage, off into a sandy hilltop vacancy. The last Milt saw of him was when, on the skyline, Bill stopped for a glance back, and seemed to be digging his knuckles into his eyes.

Then Milt turned resolutely, marched down the[358] stairs, said to his hosts with a curious quietness, "Thank you for asking me to dinner, but I'm afraid I can't come. Claire, will you walk a few blocks with me?"

During the half minute it had taken to descend the steps, Milt had reflected, with an intensity which forgot Bill, that he had been selfish; that he had thought only of the opinion of these "nice people" regarding himself, instead of understanding that it was his duty to save Claire from their enervating niceness. Not that he phrased it quite in this way. What he had been muttering was:

"Rotten shame—me so scared of folks' clothes that I don't stand up to 'em and keep 'em from smothering Claire. Lord, it would be awful if she settled down to being a Mrs. Jeff Saxton. Got to save her—not for myself—for her."

It may have been Aunt Harriet, it may have been Milt's resolution, but Mrs. Gilson answered almost meekly, "Well, if you think—— Would you like to walk, Claire?"

As he tramped off with Claire, Milt demanded, "Glad to escape?"

"Yes, and I'm glad you refused dinner. It really has been wearing, this trial by food."

"This is the last time I'll dare to meet the Gilsons."

"And I'll have to be going back East. I hope the Gilsons will forgive me, some day."

[359]"I'm afraid you didn't win them over by Aunt Hatty!"

"No. They're probably off me for life. Oh, these horrible social complications—worse than any real danger—fire or earthquake——"

"Oh, these complications—they don't exist! We just make 'em, like we make rules for a card game. What the deuce do we care about the opinions of people we don't like? And who appointed these people to a fixed social position? Did the president make Saxton High Cockalorum of Dress-Suits or something? Why, these are just folks, the same as kings and coal-heavers. There's no army we've got to fight. There's just you and me—you and I—and if we stick together, then we have all society, we are all society!"

"Ye-es, but, Milt dear, I don't want to be an outcast."

"You won't be. In the long run, if you don't take these aristocrats seriously, they'll be all the more impressed by you."

"No. That sounds cheering, in stories and these optimistic editorials in the magazines, but it isn't true. And you don't know how pleasant it is to be In. I've always been more or less on the inside, and thought outsiders dreadful. But—— Oh, I don't care! I don't care! With you—I'm happy. That's all I know and all I want to know. I've just grown up. I've just learned the greatest wisdom—to know when I'm[360] happy. But, Milt dear—— I say this because I love you. Yes, I do love you. No, don't kiss me. Yes, it is too—— It's far too public. And I want to talk seriously. You can't have any idea how strong social distinctions are. Don't despise them just because you don't know them."

"No. I won't. I'll learn. Probably America will get into the war. I'll be an engineering officer. I'll learn this social dope from the college-boy officers. And I'll come to Brooklyn with shoulder-straps and bells on and—— Will you be waiting?"

"Oh—yes—— But, Milt! If the war comes, you must be very careful not to get shot!"

"All right, if, you insist. Good Lord, Claire. I don't know what put it into my head but—— Do you realize that a miracle has happened? We're no longer Miss Boltwood and a fellow named Daggett. We have been, even when we've liked each other, up to today. Always there's been a kind of fence between us. We had to explain and defend ourselves and scrap—— But now we're us, and the rest of the world has disappeared, and——"

"And nothing else matters," said Claire.

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