Free Air

by Sinclair Lewis

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XXXIV - The Beginning of a Story

IT was the farewell to Claire and Jeff Saxton, a picnic in the Cascades, near Snoqualmie Falls—a decent and decidedly Milt-less fiesta. Mrs. Gilson was going to show Claire that they were just as hardy adventurers as that horrid Daggett person. So she didn't take the limousine, but merely the seven-passenger Locomobile with the special body.

They were ever so rough and wild. They had no maid. The chauffeur was absolutely the only help to the Gilsons, Claire, Jeff, and the temporarily and ejaculatorily nature-loving Mrs. Betz in the daring task of setting out two folding camp-tables, covering them with a linen cloth, and opening the picnic basket. Claire had to admit that she wished that she could steal the picnic basket for Milt. There were vacuum bottles of hot coffee. There were sandwiches of anchovy and paté de foie gras. There were cream cakes with almonds hidden in the suave cream, and there was a chicken salad with huge chunks of pure white meat wallowing in a sea of mayonnaise.

When the gorging was done and the cigarettes brought out (the chauffeur passed a spirit lamp), they stretched on rubber blankets, and groaned a little,[362] and spoke well of nature and the delights of roughing it.

"What is it? What's wrong? They're so—oh, so polite. They don't mean what they say and they don't dare to say what they mean. Is that it?" worried Claire.

She started. She discovered that she was looking at a bristle of rope-colored hair and a grin projected from the shelter of a manzanita bush.

"For the——" she gasped. She was too startled to be able to decide what was for-the. She spoke judiciously to Jeff Saxton about Upper Montclair, the subway, and tennis. She rose to examine the mountains, strolled away, darted down a gully, and pounced on Milt Daggett with:

"How in heaven's name——"

"Found out where you-all were going. Look! Got a bug! Rented it. Come on! Let's duck! Drive back with me!" At the end of the gully was a new Teal bug, shinier than the ancient lost chariot, but equally gay and uncomfortable.

"Can't. Like to, but—— Be awfully rude to them. Won't do that—not more than is good for their souls—even for you. Now don't be sulky."

"I won't. Nev' be sulky again, because you're crazy about me, and I don't have to be sulky."

"Oh, I am, am I! Good heavens, the inconceivable conceit of the child!"

[363]She turned her back. He darted to her, caught her hands behind her, kissed her hair, and whispered, "You are!"

"I am not!"

"Well then, you're not. Lord, you're sweet! Your hair smells like cinnamon and clean kittens. You'd rather go bumping off in my flivver than sailing in that big Loco they've got there."

"Yes," defiantly, "I would, and I'm ashamed of myself. I'm a throw-back to my horrid ancestor, the betting hostler."

"Probably. I'm a throw-back to my ancestor the judge. I'll train you to meet my fine friends."

"Well—upon—my—word—I—— Oh, do stop being idiotic. We talk like children. You reduce me to the rank of a gibbering schoolgirl. And I like it! It's so—oh, I don't know—so darn human, I suppose. Now hurry—kiss me, and get out, before they suspect."



"I'll accidentally meet your car along the road. Invite you to ride. All right?"

"Yes. Do. Oh, we are two forlorn babes in the woods! G'-by."

She sauntered back to the picnic, and observed, "What is that purple flower up on the mountain side?"

The big car was sedately purring back when it was[364] insulted by an intermediate host of a machine that came jumping out of a side road. The vulgar driver hailed them with uncouth howling. The Gilsons' chauffeur stopped, annoyed.

"Why, hello folks," bawled the social bandit.

"Oh. How do you do," refuted Mrs. Gilson.

Jeff Saxton turned a ripe purple.

"How do you like my new bug, Claire? Awful little object. But I can make fifty an hour. Come and try it, Claire, can't you?"

"Why——" Claire was obviously shocked by the impropriety of the suggestion. She looked at Mrs. Gilson, who was breathing as though she was just going under the ether. Claire said doubtfully, "Well—— If you can get me right back to the house——"

"Sure," agreed Milt.

When the Loco was gone, Milt drove the bug to the side of the road, yanked up the emergency brake, and carefully kissed the girl who was snuggled down into the absurd low tin-sided seat.

"Do we have to get back soon?" he begged.

"Oh, I don't care if we never get back. Let's shoot up into the mountains. Side road. Let's pretend we're driving across the continent again."

Firs dashing by—rocks in the sunshine—clouds jaunty beyond the inviting mouth of a mountain pass—even the ruts and bumps and culverts—she seemed[365] a part of them all. In the Gilsons' huge cars she had been shut off from the road, but in this tiny bug, so close to earth, she recovered the feeling of struggle, of triumph over difficulties, of freedom unbounded. And she could be herself, good or bad, ignorant or wise, with this boy beside her. All of which she expressed in the most eloquent speech she had ever uttered, namely:

"Oh, Milt——!"

And, to herself, "Golly, it's such a relief not to have to try to be gracious and aphoristic and repartistic and everything with Jeff."

And, "But I wonder if I am aphoristic and subtle? I wonder if when she gets the rice-powder off, Claire isn't a lot more like Milt than she thought?"

And, aloud again, "Oh, this is——"

"Yump. It sure is," Milt agreed.

They had turned from a side-road into a side-side-road. They crossed an upland valley. The fall rains had flooded a creek till it had cut across the road, washed through the thin gravel, left across the road a shallow violent stream. Milt stopped abruptly at its margin.

"Here's where we turn back, I guess," he sighed.

"Oh no! Can't we get across? It's only a couple of feet deep, and gravel bottom," insisted the restored adventurer.

"Yes, but look at the steep bank. Never get up it."

"I don't care. Let's try it! We can woggle around and dig it out somehow. I bet you two-bits we can," said the delicate young woman whom Mrs. Gilson was protecting.

"All right. In she goes!"

The bug went in—shot over the bank, dipped down till the little hood sloped below them as though they were looping the loop, struck the rushing water with a splash which hurled yellow drops over Claire's rose jersey suit, lumbered ahead, struck the farther bank, pawed at it feebly, rose two inches, slipped back, and sat there with the gurgling water all around it, turned into a motor-boat.

"No can do," grunted Milt. "Scared?"

"Nope. Love it! This is a real camp—the brush on the bank, and the stream—listen to it chuckle under the running-board."

"Do you like to camp with me?"

"Love it."

"Say! Gee! Never thought—— Claire! Got your transportation back East?"

"My ticket? Yes. Why?"

"Well, I'm sure you can turn it in and get a refund. So that's all right."

"Are you going to let me in on the secret?"

"Oh yes, might's well. I was just wondering—— I don't think much of wasting all our youth waiting—— Two-three years in engineering school, and[367] maybe going to war, and starting in on an engineering job, and me lonely as a turkey in a chicken yard, and you doing the faithful young lady in Brooklyn—— I think perhaps we might get married tomorrow and——"

"Good heavens, what do you——?"

"Do you want to go back to Brooklyn Gilsonses?"

"No, but——"

"Dear, can't we be crazy once, while we're youngsters?"

"Don't bombard me so! Let me think. One must be practical, even in craziness."

"I am. I have over a thousand dollars from the garage, and I can work evenings—as dear Jeff suggested! We'd have a two-by-four flat—— Claire——"

"Oh, let me think. I suppose I could go to the university, too, and learn a little about food and babies and building houses and government. I need to go to school a lot more than you do. Besides auction and the piano—which I play very badly—and clothes and how to get hold of tickets for successful plays, I don't know one single thing."

"Will you marry me, tomorrow?"

"Well, uh——"

"Think of Mrs. Gilson's face when she learns it! And Saxton, and that Mrs. Betz!"

It was to no spoken sentence but to her kiss that she[368] added, "Providing we ever get the car out of this river, that is!"

"Oh, my dear, my dear, and all the romantic ways I was going to propose! I had the best line about roses and stars and angels and everything——"

"They always use those, but nobody ever proposed to me in a bug in a flood before! Oh! Milt! Life is fun! I never knew it till you kidnapped me. If you kiss me again like that, we'll both topple overboard. By the way, can we get the car out?"

"I think so, if we put on the chains. We'll have to take off our shoes and stockings."

Shyly, turning from him a little, she stripped off her stockings and pumps, while he changed from a flivver-driver into a young viking, with bare white neck, pale hair ruffled about his head, trousers rolled up above his straight knees—a young seaman of the crew of Eric the Red.

They swung out on the running-board, now awash. With slight squeals they dropped into the cold stream. Dripping, laughing, his clothes clinging to him, he ducked down behind the car to get the jack under the back axle, and with the water gurgling about her and splashing its exhilarating coldness into her face, she stooped beside him to yank the stiff new chains over the rear wheels.

They climbed back into the car, joyously raffish as a pair of gipsies. She wiped a dab of mud from her[369] cheek, and remarked with an earnestness and a naturalness which that Jeff Saxton who knew her so well would never have recognized as hers:

"Gee, I hope the old bird crawls out now."

Milt let in the reverse, raced the engine, started backward with a burst of muddy water churned up by the whirling wheels. They struck the bank, sickeningly hung there for two seconds, began to crawl up, up, with a feeling that at any second they would drop back again.

Then, instantly, they were out on the shore and it was absurd to think that they had ever been boating down there in the stream. They washed each other's muddy faces, and laughed a great deal, and rubbed their legs with their stockings, and resumed something of a dull and civilized aspect and, singing sentimental ballads, turned back, found another road, and started toward a peak.

"I wonder what lies beyond the top of this climb?" said Claire.

"More mountains, and more, and more, and we're going to keep on climbing them forever. At dawn, we'll still be going on. And that's our life."

"Ye-es, providing we can still buy gas."

"Lord, that's so."

"Speaking of which, did you know that I have a tiny bit of money—it's about five thousand dollars—of my own?"

[370]"But—— That makes it impossible. Young tramp marrying lady of huge wealth——"

"No, you don't! I've accepted you. Do you think I'm going to lose the one real playmate I've ever had? It was so lonely on the Boltwoods' brown stoop till Milt came along and whistled impertinently and made the solemn little girl in frills play marbles and—— Watch out for that turn! Heavens, how I have to look after you! Is there a class in cooking at your university? No—do—not—kiss—me—on—a—turn!"

This is the beginning of the story of Milt and Claire Daggett.

The prelude over and the curtain risen on the actual play, they face the anxieties and glories of a changing world. Not without quarrels and barren hours, not free from ignorance and the discomfort of finding that between the mountain peaks they must for long gray periods dwell in the dusty valleys, they yet start their drama with the distinction of being able to laugh together, with the advantage of having discovered that neither Schoenstrom nor Brooklyn Heights is quite all of life, with the cosmic importance to the tedious world of believing in the romance that makes youth unquenchable.


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