Free Air/Chapter 25

CHAPTER XXV

THE ABYSSINIAN PRINCE

SNOQUALMIE PASS lies among mountains prickly with rocks and burnt stumps, but the road is velvet, with broad saucer curves; and to Milt it was pure beauty, it was release from life, to soar up coaxing inclines and slip down easy grades in the powerful car. "No more Teals for me," he cried, in the ecstasy of handling an engine that slowed to a demure whisper, then, at a touch of the accelerator, floated up a rise, effortless, joyous, humming the booming song of the joy in speed. He suddenly hated the bucking tediousness of the Teal. The Gomez-Dep symbolized his own new life.

So he came to Lake Washington, and just across it was the city of his long dreams, the city of the Pacific--and of Claire. There was no ferry in sight, and he rounded the lake, struck a brick pavement, rolled through rough woods, suburban villas, and petty business streets, to a region of factories and mills, with the funnels of ships beyond.

And every minute he drove more slowly and became more uneasy.

The pavement--the miles of it; the ruthless lumbermills, with their thousands of workmen quite like himself; the agitation of realizing that every three minutes he was passing a settlement larger than Schoenstrom; the strangeness of ships and all the cynical ways of the sea--the whole scene depressed him as he perceived how little of the world he knew, and how big and contemptuous of Milt Daggetts that world must be.

"Huh!" he growled. "Quite some folks living here. Don't suppose they spend such a whale of a lot of time thinking about Milt Daggett and Bill McGolwey and Prof Jones. I guess most of these people wouldn't think Heinie Rauskukle's store was so gosh-awful big. I wasn't scared of Minneapolis--much--but there they didn't ring in mountains and an ocean on you. And I didn't have to go up on the hill and meet folks like Claire's relations, and figure out whether you shake hands catch-as-catch-can or Corinthian. Look at that sawmill chimney--isn't it nice of 'em to put the fly-screen over it so the flies won't get down into the flames. No, they haven't got much more than a million feet of lumber in that one pile. And here's a bum little furniture store--it wouldn't cost more 'n about ten times all I've got to buy one of those Morris chairs. Oh Gooooooosh, won't these houses ever stop? Say, that must be a jitney. The driver snickered at me. Will the whole town be onto me? Milt, you're a kind young fellow, and you know what's the matter with Heinie's differential, but they don't need you here. Quite a few folks to carry on the business. Gosh, look at that building ahead--nine stories!"

He had planned to stop at a hotel, to wash up, and to gallop to Claire. But--well--wouldn't it maybe be better to leave the car at a public garage, so the Boltwoods could get it when they wanted to? He'd better "just kind of look around before he tackled the watch-dog."

It was the public garage which finally crushed him. It was a garage of enameled brick and colored tiles, with a plate-glass-enclosed office in which worked young men clad as the angels. One of them wore a carnation, Milt noted.

"Huh! I'll write back and tell Ben Sittka that hereafter he's to wear his best-Sunday-go-to-meeting clothes and a milkweed blossom when he comes down to work at the Red Trail Garage!"

Milt drove up the brick incline into a room thousands of miles long, with millions of new and recently polished cars standing in lines as straight as a running-board. He begged of a high-nosed colored functionary--not in khaki overalls but in maroon livery--"Where'll I put this boat?"

The Abyssinian prince gave him a check, and in a tone of extreme lack of personal interest snapped, "Take it down the aisle to the elevator."

Milt had followed the natural lines of traffic into the city; he had spoken to no one; the prince's snort was his welcome to Seattle.

Meekly he drove past the cars so ebon and silvery, so smug and strong, that they would have regarded a Teal bug as an insult. Another attendant waved him into the elevator, and Milt tried not to look surprised when the car started, not forward, but upward, as though it had turned into an aeroplane.

When these adventures were over, when he had had a shave and a shine, and washed his hands, and looked into a department-store window that contained ten billion yards of silk draped against polished satinwood, when he had felt unhappy over a movie theater large enough to contain ten times the population of Schoenstrom, and been cursed by a policeman for jaywalking, and had passed a hotel entirely full of diplomats and marble and caviare--then he could no longer put off telephoning to Claire, and humbly, in a booth meant for an umbrella-stand, he got the Eugene Gilson house, and to a female who said "Yes?" in a tone which made it mean "No!" he ventured, "May I speak to Miss Boltwood?"

Miss Boltwood, it seemed, was out.

He was not sorry. He was relieved. He ducked out of the telephone-booth with a sensation of escape.

Milt was in love with Claire; she was to him the purpose of life; he thought of her deeply and tenderly and longingly. All the way into Seattle he had brooded about her; remembered her every word and gesture; recalled the curve of her chin, and the fresh feeling of her hands. But Claire had suddenly become too big. In her were all these stores, these office buildings for clever lawyers and surgeons, these contemptuous trolley cars, these careless people in beautiful clothes. They were too much for him. Desperately he was pushing them back--back--fighting for breath. And she belonged with them.

He mailed the check for the stored car to her, with a note--written standing before a hacked wall-desk in a branch post-office--which said only, "Here's check for the boat. Did not know whether you would have room for it at house. Tried to get you on phone, phone again just as soon as rent room etc. Hope having happy time, M.D."

He went out to the university. On the trolley he relaxed. But he did not exultantly feel that he had won to the Pacific; he could not regard Seattle now as a magic city, the Bagdad of modern caravans, with Alaska and the Orient on one hand, the forests to the north, and eastward the spacious Inland Empire of the wheat. He saw it as a place where you had to work hard just to live; where busy policemen despised you because you didn't know which trolley to take; where it was incredibly hard to remember even the names of the unceasing streets; where the conductors said "Step lively!" and there was no room to whistle, no time to swap stories with a Bill McGolwey at an Old Home lunch-counter.

He found the university; he talked with the authorities about entering the engineering school; the Y. M. C. A. gave him a list of rooms; and, because it was cheap, he chose a cubbyhole in a flat over a candy store--a low room, which would probably keep out the rain, but had no other virtues. It had one bed, one table, one dissipated bureau, two straight bare chairs, and one venerable lithograph depicting a girl with ringlets shaking her irritating forefinger at a high-church kitten.

The landlady consented to his importing an oil-stove for cooking his meals. He bought the stove, with a box of oatmeal, a jar of bacon, and half a dozen eggs. He bought a plane and solid geometry, and an algebra. At dinner time he laid the algebra beside his plate of anemic bacon and leaking eggs. The eggs grew cold. He did not stir. He was reviewing his high-school algebra. He went down the pages, word by word, steadily, quickly, absolutely concentrated--as concentrated as he would recently have been in a new problem of disordered transmission. Not once did he stop to consider how glorious it would be to marry Claire--or how terrifying it would be to marry Miss Boltwood.

Three hours went by before he started up, bewildered, rubbed his eyes, picked at the chill bacon and altogether disgusting eggs, and rambled out into the street.

Again he risked the scorn of conductors and jitney drivers. He found Queen Anne Hill, found the residence of Mr. Eugene Gilson. He sneaked about it, slipped into the gate, prowled toward the house. Flabby from the intensity of study, he longed for the stimulus of Claire's smile. But as he stared up at the great squares of the clear windows, at the flare of white columns in the porch-lights, that smile seemed unreachable. He felt like a rustic at court. From the shelter of the prickly holly hedge he watched the house. It was "some kind of a party?--or what would folks like these call a party?" Limousines were arriving; he had a glimpse of silken ankles, frothy underskirts; heard easy laughter; saw people moving through a big blue and silver room; caught a drifting tremor of music.

At last he saw Claire. She was dancing with a young man as decorative as "that confounded Saxton fellow" he had met at Flathead Lake, but younger than Saxton, a laughing young man, with curly black hair. For the first time in his life Milt wanted to kill. He muttered, "Damn--damn--DAMN!" as he saw the young man carelessly embracing Claire.

His fingers tingling, his whole body yearning till every cell seemed a beating hammer, Milt longed just once to slip his hand about Claire's waist like that. He could feel the satin of her bodice and its warmth.

Then it seemed to him, as Claire again passed the window, that he did not know her at all. He had once talked to a girl who resembled her, but that was long ago. He could understand a Gomez-Dep and appreciate a brisk sports-suit, but this girl was of a world unintelligible to him. Her hair, in its dips and convolutions, was altogether a puzzle. "How did she ever fix it like that?" Her low evening dress--"what was it made of--some white stuff, but was it silk or muslin or what?" Her shoulders were startling in their bare powdery smoothness--"how dare that young pup dance with her?" And her face, that had seemed so jolly and friendly, floated past the window as pale and illusive as a wisp of fog. His longing for her passed into clumsy awe. He remembered, without resentment, that once on a hilltop in Dakota she had coldly forbidden him to follow her.

With all the pleasure of martyrdom--to make quite sure that he should realize how complete a fool he had been to intrude on Miss Boltwood--he studied the other guests. He gave them, perhaps, a glory they did not have. There were girls sleek as ivory. There was a lean stooped man, very distinguished. There was a bulky man in a dinner coat, with a semi-circle of mustache, and eyes that even at a distance seemed to give impatient orders. He would be a big banker, or a lumberman.

It was the easy friendliness of all of them that most made Milt feel like an outsider. If a servant had come out and ordered him away, he would have gone meekly ... he fancied.

He straggled off, too solidly unhappy to think how unhappy he was. In his clammy room he picked up the algebra. For a quarter-hour he could not gather enough vigor to open it. In his lassitude, his elbows felt feeble, his fingers were ready to drop off. He slowly scratched the book open----

At one o'clock he was reading algebra, his face still and grim. But already it seemed less heartily brick-red.

He listlessly telephoned to Claire, in the morning.

"Hello? Oh! Miss Boltwood? This is Milt Daggett."

"Oh! Oh, how are you?"

"Why, why I'm--I've got settled. I can get into the engineering school all right."

"I'm glad."

"Uh, enjoying Seattle?"

"Oh! Oh yes. The mountains---- Do you like it?"

"Oh! Oh yes. Sea and all---- Great town."

"Uh, w-when are we going to see you? Daddy had to go East, left you his regards. W-when----?"

"Why--why I suppose you're awful--awfully busy, meeting people and all----"

"Yes, I am, rather, but----" Her hedging uncomfortable tone changed to a cry of distress. "Milt! I must see you. Come up at four this afternoon."

"Yes!"

He rushed to a small, hot tailor-shop. He panted "Press m' suit while I wait?" They gave him a pair of temporary trousers, an undesirable pair of trousers belonging to a short fat man with no taste in fabrics, and with these flapping about his lean legs, he sat behind a calico curtain, reading The War Cry and looking at a "fashion-plate" depicting nine gentlemen yachtsmen each nine feet tall, while the Jugoslav in charge unfeelingly sprinkled and ironed and patted his suit.

He spent ten minutes in blacking his shoes, in his room--and twenty minutes in getting the blacking off his fingers.

He was walking through the gate in the Gilson hedge at one minute to four.

But he had reached Queen Anne Hill at three. For an hour he had walked the crest road, staring at the steamers below, alternately gripping his hands with desire of Claire, and timorously finally deciding that he wouldn't go to her house--wouldn't ever see her again.

He came into the hall tremblingly expecting some great thing, some rending scene, and she met him with a cool, "Oh, this is nice. Eva had some little white cakes made for us." He felt like a man who has asked for a drink of cold charged water and found it warm and flat.

"How---- Dandy house," he muttered, limply shaking her limp hand.

"Yes, isn't it a darling. They do themselves awfully well here. I'm afraid your bluff, plain, democratic Westerners are a fraud. I hear a lot more about 'society' here than I ever did in the East. The sets seem frightfully complicated." She was drifting into the drawing-room, to a tapestry stool, and Milt was awkwardly stalking a large wing chair, while she fidgeted:

"Everybody tells me about how one poor dear soul, a charming lady who used to take in washing or salt gold-mines or something, and she came here a little while ago with billions and billions of dollars, and tried to buy her way in by shopping for all the charities in town, and apparently she's just as out of it here as she would be in London. You and I aren't exclusive like that, are we!"

Somehow----

Her "you and I" was too kindly, as though she was trying to put him at ease, as though she knew he couldn't possibly be at ease. With a horribly elaborate politeness, with a smile that felt hot on his twitching cheeks, he murmured, "Oh no. No, we---- No, I guess----"

If he knew what it was he guessed, he couldn't get it out. While he was trying to find out what had become of all the things there were to say in the world, a maid came in with an astonishing object--a small, red, shelved table on wheels, laden with silver vessels, and cake, and sandwiches that were amazingly small and thin.

The maid was so starched that she creaked. She glanced at Milt---- Claire didn't make him so nervous that he thought of his clothes, but the maid did. He was certain that she knew that he had blacked his own shoes, knew how old were his clothes. He was urging himself, "Must get new suit tomorrow--ready-made--mustn't forget, now--be sure--get suit tomorrow." He wanted to apologize to the maid for existing.... He wouldn't dare to fall in love with the maid.... And he'd kill the man who said he could be fool enough to fall in love with Miss Boltwood.

He sipped his tea, and dropped sandwich crumbs, and ached, and panted, and peeped at the crushing quantities of pictures and sconces and tables and chairs in the room, and wondered what they did with all of them, while Claire chattered:

"Yes, we weren't exclusive out on the road. Didn't we meet funny people though! Oh, somehow that 'funny people' sounds familiar. But---- What fun that morning was at--Pellago, was it? Heavens, I'm forgetting those beastly little towns already--that place where we hazed the poor landlady who overcharged me."

"Yes." He was thinking of how much Claire would forget, now. "Yes. We certainly fixed her, all right. Uh--did you get the storage check for your car?"

"Oh yes, thank you. So nice of you to bother with it."

"Oh, nothing at all, nothing---- Nothing at all. Uh---- Do you like Seattle?"

"Oh yes. Such views--the mountains---- Do you like it?"

"Oh yes. Always wanted to see the sea."

"Yes, and---- Such a well-built town."

"Yes, and---- They must do a lot of business here."

"Yes, they---- Oh yes, I do like Seat----"

He had darted from his chair, brushed by the tea-wagon, ignoring its rattle and the perilous tipping of cups. He put his hand on her shoulder, snorted, "Look here. We're both sparring for time. Stop it. It's--it's all right, Claire. I want you to like me, but I'm not--I'm not like that woman you were telling about that's trying to butt in. I know, Lord I know so well what you're thinking! You're thinking I'm not up to the people you've been seeing last couple of days--not up to 'em yet, anyway. Well---- We'll be good friends."

Fearless, now, his awe gone in tenderness, he lifted her chin, looked straight into her eyes, smiled. But his courage was slipping. He wanted to run and hide.

He turned abruptly, grumbling, "Well, better get back to work now, I guess."

Her cry was hungry: "Oh, please don't go." She was beside him, shyly picking at his sleeve. "I know what you mean. I like you for being so understanding. But---- I do like you. You were the perfect companion. Let's---- Oh, let's have a walk--and try to laugh again."

He definitely did not want to stay. At this moment he did not love her. He regarded her as an estimable young woman who, for a person so idiotically reared, had really shown a good deal of pluck out on the road--where he wanted to be. He stood in the hall disliking his old cap while she ran up to put on a top coat.

Mute, casual, they tramped out of the house together, and down the hill to a region of shabby old brown houses like blisters on the hillside. They had little to say, and that little was a polite reminiscence of incidents in which neither was interested.

When they came back to the Gilson hedge, he stopped at the gate, with terrific respectableness removed his cap.

"Good night," she said cheerily. "Call me up soon again."

He did not answer "Good night." He said "Good-by"; and he meant it to be his last farewell. He caught her hand, hastily dropped it, fled down the hill.

He was, he told himself, going to leave Seattle that evening.

That, doubtless, is the reason why he ran to a trolley, to get to a department-store before it closed; and why, precipitating himself upon a startled clerk, he purchased a new suit of chaste blue serge, a new pair of tan boots (curiously like some he had seen on the university campus that morning) and a new hat so gray and conservative and felty that it might have been worn by Woodrow Wilson.

He spent the evening in reading algebra and geometry, and in telling himself that he was beautifully not thinking about Claire.

In the midst of it, he caught himself at it, and laughed.

"What you're doing, my friend, is pretending you don't like Claire, so that you can hide from your fool self the fact that you're going to sneak back to see her the first chance you get--first time the watch-dog is out. Seriously now, son, Claire is impossible for you. No can do. Now that you've been chump enough to leave home---- Oh Lord, I wish I hadn't promised to take this room for all winter. Wish I hadn't matriculated at the U. But I'm here now, and I'll stick it out. I'll stay here one year anyway, and go back home. Oh! And to---- By Golly! She liked me!"

He was thinking of the wild-rose teacher to whom he had given a lift back in Dakota. He was remembering her daintiness, her admiration.

"Now there's somebody who'd make me keep climbing, but wouldn't think I was a poor hick. If I were to drive back next spring, I could find her----"