Free Air/Chapter 4

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CHAPTER IV

A ROOM WITHOUT

GOPHER PRAIRIE has all of five thousand people. Its commercial club asserts that it has at least a thousand more population and an infinitely better band than the ridiculously envious neighboring town of Joralemon. But there were few signs that a suite had been engaged for the Boltwoods, or that Prince Collars and Cuffs had on his royal tour of America spent much time in Gopher Prairie. Claire reached it somewhat before seven. She gaped at it in a hazy way. Though this was her first prairie town for a considerable stay, she could not pump up interest.

The state of mind of the touring motorist entering a strange place at night is as peculiar and definite as that of a prospector. It is compounded of gratitude at having hot safely in; of perception of a new town, yet with all eagerness about new things dulled by weariness; of hope that there is going to be a good hotel, but small expectation - and absolutely no probability - that there really will be one.

Claire had only a blotched impression of peaked wooden buildings and squatty brick stores with faded awnings; of a red grain elevator and a crouching station and a lumberyard; then of the hopelessly muddy road leading on again into the country. She felt that if she didn't stop at once, she would miss the town entirely. The driving-instinct sustained her, made her take corners sharply, spot a garage, send the Gomez whirling in on the cement floor.

The garage attendant looked at her and yawned.

"Where do you want the car?" Claire asked sharply.

"Oh, stick it in that stall," grunted the man, and turned his back.

Claire glowered at him. She thought of a good line about rudeness. But - oh, she was too tired to fuss. She tried to run the car into the empty stall, which was not a stall, but a space, like a missing tooth, between two cars, and so narrow that she was afraid of crumpling the lordly fenders of the Gomez. She ran down the floor, returned with a flourish, thought she was going to back straight into the stall - and found she wasn't. While her nerves shrieked, and it did not seem possible that she could change gears, she managed to get the Gomez behind a truck and side-on to the stall.

"Go forward again, and cramp your wheel-sharp!" ordered the garage man.

Claire wanted to outline what she thought of him, but she merely demanded, "Will you kindly drive it in?"

"Why, sure. You bet," said the man casually. His readiness ruined her inspired fury, She was somewhat disappointed.

As she climbed out of the car and put a hand on the smart bags strapped on a running-board, the accumulated weariness struck her in a shock. She could have driven on for hours, but the instant the car was safe for the night, she went to pieces. Her ears rang, her eyes were soaked in fire, her mouth was dry, the back of her neck pinched. It was her father who took the lead as they rambled to the one tolerable hotel in the town.

In the hotel Claire was conscious of the ugliness of the poison-green walls and brass cuspidors and insurance calendars and bare floor of the office; conscious of the interesting scientific fact that all air had been replaced by the essence of cigar smoke and cooking cabbage; of the stares of the traveling men lounging in bored lines; and of the lack of welcome on the part of the night clerk, an oldish, bleached man with whiskers instead of a collar.

She tried to be important: "Two rooms with bath, please."

The bleached man stared at her, and shoved forward the register and a pen clotted with ink. She signed. He took the bags, led the way to the stairs. Anxiously she asked, "Both rooms are with bath?"

From the second step the night clerk looked down at her as though she were a specimen that ought to be pinned on the corks at once, and he said loudly, "No, ma'am. Neither of 'em. Got no rooms vacant with bawth, or bath either! Not but what we got 'em in the house. This is an up-to-date place. But one of 'm's took, and the other has kind of been out of order the last three-four months."

From the audience of drummers below, a delicate giggle.

Claire was too angry to answer. And too tired. When, after miles of stairs, leagues of stuffy hall, she reached her coop, with its iron bed so loose-jointed that it rattled to a breath, its bureau with a list to port, and its anemic rocking-chair, she dropped on the bed, panting, her eyes closed but still brimming with fire. It did not seem that she could ever move again. She felt chloroformed. She couldn't even coax herself off the bed, to see if her father was any better off in the next room.

She was certain that she was not going to drive to Seattle. She wasn't going to drive anywhere! She was going to freight the car back to Minneapolis, and herself go back by train - Pullman! - drawing room!

But for the thought of her father she would have fallen asleep, in her drenched tweeds. When she did force the energy to rise, she had to support herself by the bureau, by the foot of the bed, as she moved about the room, hanging up the wet suit, rubbing herself with a slipper towel, putting on a dark silk frock and pumps. She found her father sitting motionless in his room, staring at the wall. She made herself laugh at him for his gloomy emptiness. She paraded down the hall with him.

As they reached the foot of the stairs, the old, the night clerk leaned across the desk, and in a voice that took the whole office into the conversation, quizzed, "Come from New York, eh? Well you're quite a ways from home."

Claire nodded. She felt shyer before these solemnly staring traveling men than she ever had in a box at the opera. At the double door of the dining-room, from which the cabbage smell steamed with a lustiness undiminished by the sad passing of its youth, a man, one of the average-sized, average-mustached, average business-suited, average-brown-haired men who can never be remembered, stopped the Boltwoods and hawed, "Saw you coming into town. You've got a New York license?"

She couldn't deny it.

"Quite a ways from home, aren't you?"

She had to admit it.

She was escorted by a bouncing, black-eyed waitress to a table for four. The next table was a long one, at which seven traveling men, or local business men whose wives were at the lake for the summer, ceased trying to get nourishment out of the food, and gawped at her. Before the Boltwoods were seated, the waitress dabbed at non-existent spots on their napkins, ignored a genuine crumb on the cloth in front of Claire's plate, made motions at a cup and a formerly plated fork, and bubbled, "Autoing through?"

Claire fumbled for her chair, oozed into it, and breathed, "Yes."

"Going far?"

"Yes."

"Where do you live?"

"New York."

"My! You're quite a ways from home, aren't you?"

"Apparently."

"Hamnegs roasbeef roaspork thapplesauce frypickerel springlamintsauce."

"I - I beg your pardon."

The waitress repeated.

I - oh - oh, bring us ham and eggs. Is that all right, father?"

"Oh - no - well - "

"You wanted same?" the waitress inquired of Mr. Boltwood.

He was intimidated. He said, "If you please," and feebly pawed at a fork.

The waitress was instantly back with soup, and a collection of china gathered by a man of much travel, catholic interests, and no taste. One of the plates alleged itself to belong to a hotel in Omaha. She pushed a pitcher of condensed milk to the exact spot where it would catch Mr. Boltwood's sleeve, brushed the crumb from in front of Claire to a shelter beneath the pink and warty sugar bowl, recovered a toothpick which had been concealed behind her glowing lips, picking for a while, gave it up, put her hands on her hips, and addressed Claire:

"How far are you going?"

"To Seattle."

"Got any folks there?"

"Any - Oh, yes, I suppose so."

"Going to stay there long?"

"Really - We haven't decided."

"Come from New York, eh? Quite a ways from home, all right. Father in business there?"

"Yes."

"What's his line?"

"I beg pardon?"

"What's his line? Ouch! Jiminy, these shoes pinch my feet. I used to could dance all night, but I'm getting fat, I guess, ha! ha! Put on seven pounds last month. Ouch! Gee, they certainly do pinch my toes. What business you say your father's in?"

"I didn't say, but - Oh, railroad."

"G.N. or N.P."

"I don't think I quite understand-"

Mr. Boltwood interposed, "Are the ham and eggs ready?"

"I'll beat it out and see." When she brought them, she put a spoon in Claire's saucer of peas, and demanded, "Say, you don't wear that silk dress in the auto, do you?"

"No."

"I should think you'd put a pink sash on it. Seems like it's kind of plain - it's a real pretty piece of goods though. A pink sash would be real pretty. You dark-complected ladies always look better for a touch of color."

Then was Claire certain that the waitress was baiting her, for the amusement of the men at the long table. She exploded. Probably the waitress did not know there had been an explosion when Claire looked coldly up, raised her brows, looked down, and poked the cold and salty slab of ham, for she was continuing:

"A light-complected lady like me don't need so much color, you notice my hair is black, but I'm light, really Pete Liverquist says I'm a blonde brunette, gee, he certainly is killing that fellow, oh, he's a case, he sure does like to hear himself talk, my! there's Old Man Walters, he runs the telephone exchange here, I heard he went down to St. Cloud on Number 2, but I guess he couldn't of, he'll be yodeling for friend soup and a couple slabs of moo, I better beat it, I'll say so, so long."

Claire's comment was as acid as the pale beets before her, as bitter as the peas, as hard as the lumps in the watery mashed potatoes:

"I don't know whether the woman is insane or ignorant. I wish I could tell whether she was trying to make me angry for the benefit of those horrid unshaven men, or merely for her private edification."

"By me, dolly. So is this pie. Let's get some medium to levitate us up to bed. Uh-uh- I think perhaps we'd better not try to drive clear to Seattle. If we just went through to Montana? -or even just to Bismarck?"

"Drive through with the hotels like this? My dear man, if we have one more such day, we stop right there. I hope we get by the man at the desk. I have a feeling he's lurking there, trying to think up something insulting to say to us. Oh, my dear, I hope you aren't as beastly tired as I am. My bones are hot pokers."

The man at the desk got in only one cynical question, "Driving far?" before Claire seized her father's arm and started him upstairs.

For the first time since she had been ten - and in a state of naughtiness immediately following a pronounced state of grace induced by the pulpit oratory of the new rector of St. Chrysostom's - she permitted herself the luxury of not stopping to brush her teeth before she went to bed. her sleep was drugged - it was not sleep, but an aching exhaustion of the body which did not prevent her mind from revisualizing the road, going stupidly over the muddy stretches and sharp corners, then becoming conscious of that bed, the lump under her should blades, the slope to westward, and the creak that rose every time she tossed. For at least fifteen minutes she lay awake for hours.

Thus Claire Boltwood's first voyage into democracy.

It was not so much that the sun was shining, in the morning, as that a ripple of fresh breeze came through the window. She discovered that she again longed to go on - keep going - see new places, conquer new roads. She didn't want all good road. She wanted something to struggle against. She'd try it for one more day. She was stiff as she crawled out of bed, but a rub with cold water left her feeling that she was stronger than she ever had been; that she was a woman, not a dependent girl. Already, in the beating prairie sun-glare, the wide main street of Gopher Prairie was drying; the mud ruts flattening out. Beyond the town hovered the note of a meadow lark - sunlight in sound.

"Oh, it's a sweet morning! Sweet! We will go on! I'm terribly excited!" she laughed.

She found her father dressed. He did not know whether or not he wanted to go on. "I seem to have lost my grip on things. I used to be rather decisive. But we'll try it one more day, if you like," he said.

When she had gaily marched him downstairs, she suddenly and unhappily remembered the people she would have to face, the gibing questions she would have to answer.

The night clerk was still at the desk, as though he had slept standing. he hailed them. "Well, well! Up bright and early! Hope you folks slept well. Beds aren't so good as they might be, but we're kind of planning to get some new mattresses. But you get pretty good air to sleep in. Hope you have a fine hike today."

His voice was cordial; he was their old friend; faithful watcher of their progress. Claire found herself dimpling at him.

In the dining-room their inquisitional acquaintance, the waitress, fairly ran to them. "Sit down, folks. Waffles this morning. You want to stock up for your drive. My, ain't it an elegant morning! I hope you have a swell drive today!"

"Why!" Claire gasped, "why, they aren't rude. They care - about people they never saw before. That's why they ask questions! I never thought - I never thought! There's people in the world who want to know us without having looked us up in the Social Register! I'm so ashamed! Not that the sunshine changes my impression of this coffee. It's frightful! But that will improve. And the people - they were being friendly, all the time. Oh, Henry B., young Henry Boltwood, you and your godmother Claire have a lot to learn about the world!"

As they came into the garage, their surly acquaintance of the night before looked just as surly, but Claire tried a boisterous "Good morning!"

"Mornin'! Going north?" Better take the left-hand road at Wakamin. Easier going. Driver your car out for you?"

As the car stood outside taking on gas, a man flapped up, spelled out the New York license, looked at Claire and her father, and inquired, "Quite a ways from home, aren't you?"

This time Claire did not say "Yes!" She experimented with, "Yes, quite a ways."

"Well, hope you have a good trip. Good luck!"

Claire leaned her head on her hand, though hard. "It's I who wasn't friendly," she propounded to her father. "How much I've been losing. Though I still refuse to like that coffee!"

She noticed the sign on the air-hose of the garage - "Free Air."

"There's our motto for the pilgrimage!" she cried.

She knew the exaltation of starting out in the fresh morning for places she had never seen, without the bond of having to return at night.

Thus Claire's second voyage into democracy.

While she was starting the young man who had pulled her out of the mud and given her lunch was folding up the tarpaulin and blankets on which he had slept beside his Teal bug, in the woods three miles north of Gopher Prairie. To the high-well-born cat, Vere de Vere, Milt Daggett muse aloud, "Your ladyship, as Shakespeare says, the man that gets cold feet never wins the girl. And I'm scared, cat, clean scared."