Less annoying but also much duller were the minor classes which were being instructed in philosophy and Oriental ethnology by earnest spinsters. Most of them met in the highly varnished Sunday School room, but there was an overflow to the basement, which was decorated with varicose water-pipes and lighted by small windows high up in the oozing wall. What Babbitt saw, however, was the First Congregational Church of Catawba. He was back in the Sunday School of his boyhood. He smelled again that polite stuffiness to be found only in church parlors; he recalled the case of drab Sunday School books: "Hetty, a Humble Heroine" and "Josephus, a Lad of Palestine;" he thumbed once more the high-colored text-cards which no boy wanted but no boy liked to throw away, because they were somehow sacred; he was tortured by the stumbling rote of thirty-five years ago, as in the vast Zenith church he listened to:
"Now, Edgar, you read the next verse. What does it mean when it says it's easier for a camel to go through a needle's eye? What does this teach us? Clarence! Please don't wiggle so! If you had studied your lesson you wouldn't be so fidgety. Now, Earl, what is the lesson Jesus was trying to teach his disciples? The one thing I want you to especially remember, boys, is the words, 'With God all things are possible.' Just think of that always—Clarence, PLEASE pay attention—just say 'With God all things are possible' whenever you feel discouraged, and, Alec, will you read the next verse; if you'd pay attention you wouldn't lose your place!"
Drone—drone—drone—gigantic bees that boomed in a cavern of drowsiness—
Babbitt started from his open-eyed nap, thanked the teacher for "the privilege of listening to her splendid teaching," and staggered on to the next circle.
After two weeks of this he had no suggestions whatever for the Reverend Dr. Drew.
Then he discovered a world of Sunday School journals, an enormous and busy domain of weeklies and monthlies which were as technical, as practical and forward-looking, as the real-estate columns or the shoe-trade magazines. He bought half a dozen of them at a religious book-shop and till after midnight he read them and admired.
He found many lucrative tips on "Focusing Appeals," "Scouting for New Members," and "Getting Prospects to Sign up with the Sunday School." He particularly liked the word "prospects," and he was moved by the rubric:
"The moral springs of the community's life lie deep in its Sunday Schools—its schools of religious instruction and inspiration. Neglect now means loss of spiritual vigor and moral power in years to come.... Facts like the above, followed by a straight-arm appeal, will reach folks who can never be laughed or jollied into doing their part."
Babbitt admitted, "That's so. I used to skin out of the ole Sunday School at Catawba every chance I got, but same time, I wouldn't be where I am to-day, maybe, if it hadn't been for its training in—in moral power. And all about the Bible. (Great literature. Have to read some of it again, one of these days)."
How scientifically the Sunday School could be organized he learned from an article in the Westminster Adult Bible Class:
"The second vice-president looks after the fellowship of the class. She chooses a group to help her. These become ushers. Every one who comes gets a glad hand. No one goes away a stranger. One member of the group stands on the doorstep and invites passers-by to come in."
Perhaps most of all Babbitt appreciated the remarks by William H. Ridgway in the Sunday School Times:
"If you have a Sunday School class without any pep and get-up-and-go in it, that is, without interest, that is uncertain in attendance, that acts like a fellow with the spring fever, let old Dr. Ridgway write you a prescription. Rx. Invite the Bunch for Supper."
The Sunday School journals were as well rounded as they were practical. They neglected none of the arts. As to music the Sunday School Times advertised that C. Harold Lowden, "known to thousands through his sacred compositions," had written a new masterpiece, "entitled 'Yearning for You.' The poem, by Harry D. Kerr, is one of the daintiest you could imagine and the music is indescribably beautiful. Critics are agreed that it will sweep the country. May be made into a charming sacred song by substituting the hymn words, 'I Heard the Voice of Jesus Say.'"
Even manual training was adequately considered. Babbitt noted an ingenious way of illustrating the resurrection of Jesus Christ:
"Model for Pupils to Make. Tomb with Rolling Door.—Use a square covered box turned upside down. Pull the cover forward a little to form a groove at the bottom. Cut a square door, also cut a circle of cardboard to more than cover the door. Cover the circular door and the tomb thickly with stiff mixture of sand, flour and water and let it dry. It was the heavy circular stone over the door the women found 'rolled away' on Easter morning. This is the story we are to 'Go-tell.'"
In their advertisements the Sunday School journals were thoroughly efficient. Babbitt was interested in a preparation which "takes the place of exercise for sedentary men by building up depleted nerve tissue, nourishing the brain and the digestive system." He was edified to learn that the selling of Bibles was a hustling and strictly competitive industry, and as an expert on hygiene he was pleased by the Sanitary Communion Outfit Company's announcement of "an improved and satisfactory outfit throughout, including highly polished beautiful mahogany tray. This tray eliminates all noise, is lighter and more easily handled than others and is more in keeping with the furniture of the church than a tray of any other material."
He dropped the pile of Sunday School journals.
He pondered, "Now, there's a real he-world. Corking!
"Ashamed I haven't sat in more. Fellow that's an influence in the community—shame if he doesn't take part in a real virile hustling religion. Sort of Christianity Incorporated, you might say.
"But with all reverence.
"Some folks might claim these Sunday School fans are undignified and unspiritual and so on. Sure! Always some skunk to spring things like that! Knocking and sneering and tearing-down—so much easier than building up. But me, I certainly hand it to these magazines. They've brought ole George F. Babbitt into camp, and that's the answer to the critics!
"The more manly and practical a fellow is, the more he ought to lead the enterprising Christian life. Me for it! Cut out this carelessness and boozing and—Rone! Where the devil you been? This is a fine time o' night to be coming in!"
THERE are but three or four old houses in Floral Heights, and in Floral Heights an old house is one which was built before 1880. The largest of these is the residence of William Washington Eathorne, president of the First State Bank.
The Eathorne Mansion preserves the memory of the "nice parts" of Zenith as they appeared from 1860 to 1900. It is a red brick immensity with gray sandstone lintels and a roof of slate in courses of red, green, and dyspeptic yellow. There are two anemic towers, one roofed with copper, the other crowned with castiron ferns. The porch is like an open tomb; it is supported by squat granite pillars above which hang frozen cascades of brick. At one side of the house is a huge stained-glass window in the shape of a keyhole.
But the house has an effect not at all humorous. It embodies the heavy dignity of those Victorian financiers who ruled the generation between the pioneers and the brisk "sales-engineers" and created a somber oligarchy by gaining control of banks, mills, land, railroads, mines. Out of the dozen contradictory Zeniths which together make up the true and complete Zenith, none is so powerful and enduring yet none so unfamiliar to the citizens as the small, still, dry, polite, cruel Zenith of the William Eathornes; and for that tiny hierarchy the other Zeniths unwittingly labor and insignificantly die.
Most of the castles of the testy Victorian tetrarchs are gone now or decayed into boarding-houses, but the Eathorne Mansion remains virtuous and aloof, reminiscent of London, Back Bay, Rittenhouse Square. Its marble steps are scrubbed daily, the brass plate is reverently polished, and the lace curtains are as prim and superior as William Washington Eathorne himself.
With a certain awe Babbitt and Chum Frink called on Eathorne for a meeting of the Sunday School Advisory Committee; with uneasy stillness they followed a uniformed maid through catacombs of reception-rooms to the library. It was as unmistakably the library of a solid old banker as Eathorne's side-whiskers were the side-whiskers of a solid old banker. The books were most of them Standard Sets, with the correct and traditional touch of dim blue, dim gold, and glossy calf-skin. The fire was exactly correct and traditional; a small, quiet, steady fire, reflected by polished fire-irons. The oak desk was dark and old and altogether perfect; the chairs were gently supercilious.
Eathorne's inquiries as to the healths of Mrs. Babbitt, Miss Babbitt, and the Other Children were softly paternal, but Babbitt had nothing with which to answer him. It was indecent to think of using the "How's tricks, ole socks?" which gratified Vergil Gunch and Frink and Howard Littlefield—men who till now had seemed successful and urbane. Babbitt and Frink sat politely, and politely did Eathorne observe, opening his thin lips just wide enough to dismiss the words, "Gentlemen, before we begin our conference—you may have felt the cold in coming here—so good of you to save an old man the journey—shall we perhaps have a whisky toddy?"
So well trained was Babbitt in all the conversation that befits a Good Fellow that he almost disgraced himself with "Rather than make trouble, and always providin' there ain't any enforcement officers hiding in the waste-basket—" The words died choking in his throat. He bowed in flustered obedience. So did Chum Frink.
Eathorne rang for the maid.
The modern and luxurious Babbitt had never seen any one ring for a servant in a private house, except during meals. Himself, in hotels, had rung for bell-boys, but in the house you didn't hurt Matilda's feelings; you went out in the hall and shouted for her. Nor had he, since prohibition, known any one to be casual about drinking. It was extraordinary merely to sip his toddy and not cry, "Oh, maaaaan, this hits me right where I live!" And always, with the ecstasy of youth meeting greatness, he marveled, "That little fuzzy-face there, why, he could make me or break me! If he told my banker to call my loans—! Gosh! That quarter-sized squirt! And looking like he hadn't got a single bit of hustle to him! I wonder—Do we Boosters throw too many fits about pep?"
From this thought he shuddered away, and listened devoutly to Eathorne's ideas on the advancement of the Sunday School, which were very clear and very bad.
Diffidently Babbitt outlined his own suggestions:
"I think if you analyze the needs of the school, in fact, going right at it as if it was a merchandizing problem, of course the one basic and fundamental need is growth. I presume we're all agreed we won't be satisfied till we build up the biggest darn Sunday School in the whole state, so the Chatham Road Presbyterian won't have to take anything off anybody. Now about jazzing up the campaign for prospects: they've already used contesting teams, and given prizes to the kids that bring in the most members. And they made a mistake there: the prizes were a lot of folderols and doodads like poetry books and illustrated Testaments, instead of something a real live kid would want to work for, like real cash or a speedometer for his motor cycle. Course I suppose it's all fine and dandy to illustrate the lessons with these decorated book-marks and blackboard drawings and so on, but when it comes down to real he-hustling, getting out and drumming up customers—or members, I mean, why, you got to make it worth a fellow's while.
"Now, I want to propose two stunts: First, divide the Sunday School into four armies, depending on age. Everybody gets a military rank in his own army according to how many members he brings in, and the duffers that lie down on us and don't bring in any, they remain privates. The pastor and superintendent rank as generals. And everybody has got to give salutes and all the rest of that junk, just like a regular army, to make 'em feel it's worth while to get rank.
"Then, second: Course the school has its advertising committee, but, Lord, nobody ever really works good—nobody works well just for the love of it. The thing to do is to be practical and up-to-date, and hire a real paid press-agent for the Sunday School-some newspaper fellow who can give part of his time."
"Sure, you bet!" said Chum Frink.
"Think of the nice juicy bits he could get in!" Babbitt crowed. "Not only the big, salient, vital facts, about how fast the Sunday School—and the collection—is growing, but a lot of humorous gossip and kidding: about how some blowhard fell down on his pledge to get new members, or the good time the Sacred Trinity class of girls had at their wieniewurst party. And on the side, if he had time, the press-agent might even boost the lessons themselves—do a little advertising for all the Sunday Schools in town, in fact. No use being hoggish toward the rest of 'em, providing we can keep the bulge on 'em in membership. Frinstance, he might get the papers to—Course I haven't got a literary training like Frink here, and I'm just guessing how the pieces ought to be written, but take frinstance, suppose the week's lesson is about Jacob; well, the press-agent might get in something that would have a fine moral, and yet with a trick headline that'd get folks to read it—say like: 'Jake Fools the Old Man; Makes Getaway with Girl and Bankroll.' See how I mean? That'd get their interest! Now, course, Mr. Eathorne, you're conservative, and maybe you feel these stunts would be undignified, but honestly, I believe they'd bring home the bacon."
Eathorne folded his hands on his comfortable little belly and purred like an aged pussy:
"May I say, first, that I have been very much pleased by your analysis of the situation, Mr. Babbitt. As you surmise, it's necessary in My Position to be conservative, and perhaps endeavor to maintain a certain standard of dignity. Yet I think you'll find me somewhat progressive. In our bank, for example, I hope I may say that we have as modern a method of publicity and advertising as any in the city. Yes, I fancy you'll find us oldsters quite cognizant of the shifting spiritual values of the age. Yes, oh yes. And so, in fact, it pleases me to be able to say that though personally I might prefer the sterner Presbyterianism of an earlier era—"
Babbitt finally gathered that Eathorne was willing.
Chum Frink suggested as part-time press-agent one Kenneth Escott, reporter on the Advocate-Times.
They parted on a high plane of amity and Christian helpfulness.
Babbitt did not drive home, but toward the center of the city. He wished to be by himself and exult over the beauty of intimacy with William Washington Eathorne.
A snow-blanched evening of ringing pavements and eager lights.
Great golden lights of trolley-cars sliding along the packed snow of the roadway. Demure lights of little houses. The belching glare of a distant foundry, wiping out the sharp-edged stars. Lights of neighborhood drug stores where friends gossiped, well pleased, after the day's work.
The green light of a police-station, and greener radiance on the snow; the drama of a patrol-wagon—gong beating like a terrified heart, headlights scorching the crystal-sparkling street, driver not a chauffeur but a policeman proud in uniform, another policeman perilously dangling on the step at the back, and a glimpse of the prisoner. A murderer, a burglar, a coiner cleverly trapped?
An enormous graystone church with a rigid spire; dim light in the Parlors, and cheerful droning of choir-practise. The quivering green mercury-vapor light of a photo-engraver's loft. Then the storming lights of down-town; parked cars with ruby tail-lights; white arched entrances to movie theaters, like frosty mouths of winter caves; electric signs—serpents and little dancing men of fire; pink-shaded globes and scarlet jazz music in a cheap up-stairs dance-hall; lights of Chinese restaurants, lanterns painted with cherry-blossoms and with pagodas, hung against lattices of lustrous gold and black. Small dirty lamps in small stinking lunchrooms. The smart shopping-district, with rich and quiet light on crystal pendants and furs and suave surfaces of polished wood in velvet-hung reticent windows. High above the street, an unexpected square hanging in the darkness, the window of an office where some one was working late, for a reason unknown and stimulating. A man meshed in bankruptcy, an ambitious boy, an oil-man suddenly become rich?
The air was shrewd, the snow was deep in uncleared alleys, and beyond the city, Babbitt knew, were hillsides of snow-drift among wintry oaks, and the curving ice-enchanted river.
He loved his city with passionate wonder. He lost the accumulated weariness of business—worry and expansive oratory; he felt young and potential. He was ambitious. It was not enough to be a Vergil Gunch, an Orville Jones. No. "They're bully fellows, simply lovely, but they haven't got any finesse." No. He was going to be an Eathorne; delicately rigorous, coldly powerful.
"That's the stuff. The wallop in the velvet mitt. Not let anybody get fresh with you. Been getting careless about my diction. Slang. Colloquial. Cut it out. I was first-rate at rhetoric in college. Themes on—Anyway, not bad. Had too much of this hooptedoodle and good-fellow stuff. I—Why couldn't I organize a bank of my own some day? And Ted succeed me!"
He drove happily home, and to Mrs. Babbitt he was a William Washington Eathorne, but she did not notice it.
Young Kenneth Escott, reporter on the Advocate-Times was appointed press-agent of the Chatham Road Presbyterian Sunday School. He gave six hours a week to it. At least he was paid for giving six hours a week. He had friends on the Press and the Gazette and he was not (officially) known as a press-agent. He procured a trickle of insinuating items about neighborliness and the Bible, about class-suppers, jolly but educational, and the value of the Prayer-life in attaining financial success.
The Sunday School adopted Babbitt's system of military ranks. Quickened by this spiritual refreshment, it had a boom. It did not become the largest school in Zenith—the Central Methodist Church kept ahead of it by methods which Dr. Drew scored as "unfair, undignified, un-American, ungentlemanly, and unchristian"—but it climbed from fourth place to second, and there was rejoicing in heaven, or at least in that portion of heaven included in the parsonage of Dr. Drew, while Babbitt had much praise and good repute.
He had received the rank of colonel on the general staff of the school. He was plumply pleased by salutes on the street from unknown small boys; his ears were tickled to ruddy ecstasy by hearing himself called "Colonel;" and if he did not attend Sunday School merely to be thus exalted, certainly he thought about it all the way there.
He was particularly pleasant to the press-agent, Kenneth Escott; he took him to lunch at the Athletic Club and had him at the house for dinner.
Like many of the cocksure young men who forage about cities in apparent contentment and who express their cynicism in supercilious slang, Escott was shy and lonely. His shrewd starveling face broadened with joy at dinner, and he blurted, "Gee whillikins, Mrs. Babbitt, if you knew how good it is to have home eats again!"
Escott and Verona liked each other. All evening they "talked about ideas." They discovered that they were Radicals. True, they were sensible about it. They agreed that all communists were criminals; that this vers libre was tommy-rot; and that while there ought to be universal disarmament, of course Great Britain and the United States must, on behalf of oppressed small nations, keep a navy equal to the tonnage of all the rest of the world. But they were so revolutionary that they predicted (to Babbitt's irritation) that there would some day be a Third Party which would give trouble to the Republicans and Democrats.
Escott shook hands with Babbitt three times, at parting.
Babbitt mentioned his extreme fondness for Eathorne.
Within a week three newspapers presented accounts of Babbitt's sterling labors for religion, and all of them tactfully mentioned William Washington Eathorne as his collaborator.
Nothing had brought Babbitt quite so much credit at the Elks, the Athletic Club, and the Boosters'. His friends had always congratulated him on his oratory, but in their praise was doubt, for even in speeches advertising the city there was something highbrow and degenerate, like writing poetry. But now Orville Jones shouted across the Athletic dining-room, "Here's the new director of the First State Bank!" Grover Butterbaugh, the eminent wholesaler of plumbers' supplies, chuckled, "Wonder you mix with common folks, after holding Eathorne's hand!" And Emil Wengert, the jeweler, was at last willing to discuss buying a house in Dorchester.
When the Sunday School campaign was finished, Babbitt suggested to Kenneth Escott, "Say, how about doing a little boosting for Doc Drew personally?"
Escott grinned. "You trust the doc to do a little boosting for himself, Mr. Babbitt! There's hardly a week goes by without his ringing up the paper to say if we'll chase a reporter up to his Study, he'll let us in on the story about the swell sermon he's going to preach on the wickedness of short skirts, or the authorship of the Pentateuch. Don't you worry about him. There's just one better publicity-grabber in town, and that's this Dora Gibson Tucker that runs the Child Welfare and the Americanization League, and the only reason she's got Drew beaten is because she has got SOME brains!"
"Well, now Kenneth, I don't think you ought to talk that way about the doctor. A preacher has to watch his interests, hasn't he? You remember that in the Bible about—about being diligent in the Lord's business, or something?"
"All right, I'll get something in if you want me to, Mr. Babbitt, but I'll have to wait till the managing editor is out of town, and then blackjack the city editor."
Thus it came to pass that in the Sunday Advocate-Times, under a picture of Dr. Drew at his earnestest, with eyes alert, jaw as granite, and rustic lock flamboyant, appeared an inscription—a wood-pulp tablet conferring twenty-four hours' immortality:
The Rev. Dr. John Jennison Drew, M.A., pastor of the beautiful Chatham Road Presbyterian Church in lovely Floral Heights, is a wizard soul-winner. He holds the local record for conversions. During his shepherdhood an average of almost a hundred sin-weary persons per year have declared their resolve to lead a new life and have found a harbor of refuge and peace.
Everything zips at the Chatham Road Church. The subsidiary organizations are keyed to the top-notch of efficiency. Dr. Drew is especially keen on good congregational singing. Bright cheerful hymns are used at every meeting, and the special Sing Services attract lovers of music and professionals from all parts of the city.
On the popular lecture platform as well as in the pulpit Dr. Drew is a renowned word-painter, and during the course of the year he receives literally scores of invitations to speak at varied functions both here and elsewhere.
Babbitt let Dr. Drew know that he was responsible for this tribute. Dr. Drew called him "brother," and shook his hand a great many times.
During the meetings of the Advisory Committee, Babbitt had hinted that he would be charmed to invite Eathorne to dinner, but Eathorne had murmured, "So nice of you—old man, now—almost never go out." Surely Eathorne would not refuse his own pastor. Babbitt said boyishly to Drew:
"Say, doctor, now we've put this thing over, strikes me it's up to the dominie to blow the three of us to a dinner!"
"Bully! You bet! Delighted!" cried Dr. Drew, in his manliest way. (Some one had once told him that he talked like the late President Roosevelt.)
"And, uh, say, doctor, be sure and get Mr. Eathorne to come. Insist on it. It's, uh—I think he sticks around home too much for his own health."
It was a friendly dinner. Babbitt spoke gracefully of the stabilizing and educational value of bankers to the community. They were, he said, the pastors of the fold of commerce. For the first time Eathorne departed from the topic of Sunday Schools, and asked Babbitt about the progress of his business. Babbitt answered modestly, almost filially.
A few months later, when he had a chance to take part in the Street Traction Company's terminal deal, Babbitt did not care to go to his own bank for a loan. It was rather a quiet sort of deal and, if it had come out, the Public might not have understood. He went to his friend Mr. Eathorne; he was welcomed, and received the loan as a private venture; and they both profited in their pleasant new association.
After that, Babbitt went to church regularly, except on spring Sunday mornings which were obviously meant for motoring. He announced to Ted, "I tell you, boy, there's no stronger bulwark of sound conservatism than the evangelical church, and no better place to make friends who'll help you to gain your rightful place in the community than in your own church-home!"
THOUGH he saw them twice daily, though he knew and amply discussed every detail of their expenditures, yet for weeks together Babbitt was no more conscious of his children than of the buttons on his coat-sleeves.
The admiration of Kenneth Escott made him aware of Verona.
She had become secretary to Mr. Gruensberg of the Gruensberg Leather Company; she did her work with the thoroughness of a mind which reveres details and never quite understands them; but she was one of the people who give an agitating impression of being on the point of doing something desperate—of leaving a job or a husband—without ever doing it. Babbitt was so hopeful about Escott's hesitant ardors that he became the playful parent. When he returned from the Elks he peered coyly into the living-room and gurgled, "Has our Kenny been here to-night?" He never credited Verona's protest, "Why, Ken and I are just good friends, and we only talk about Ideas. I won't have all this sentimental nonsense, that would spoil everything."
It was Ted who most worried Babbitt.
With conditions in Latin and English but with a triumphant record in manual training, basket-ball, and the organization of dances, Ted was struggling through his Senior year in the East Side High School. At home he was interested only when he was asked to trace some subtle ill in the ignition system of the car. He repeated to his tut-tutting father that he did not wish to go to college or law-school, and Babbitt was equally disturbed by this "shiftlessness" and by Ted's relations with Eunice Littlefield, next door.
Though she was the daughter of Howard Littlefield, that wrought-iron fact-mill, that horse-faced priest of private ownership, Eunice was a midge in the sun. She danced into the house, she flung herself into Babbitt's lap when he was reading, she crumpled his paper, and laughed at him when he adequately explained that he hated a crumpled newspaper as he hated a broken sales-contract. She was seventeen now. Her ambition was to be a cinema actress. She did not merely attend the showing of every "feature film;" she also read the motion-picture magazines, those extraordinary symptoms of the Age of Pep-monthlies and weeklies gorgeously illustrated with portraits of young women who had recently been manicure girls, not very skilful manicure girls, and who, unless their every grimace had been arranged by a director, could not have acted in the Easter cantata of the Central Methodist Church; magazines reporting, quite seriously, in "interviews" plastered with pictures of riding-breeches and California bungalows, the views on sculpture and international politics of blankly beautiful, suspiciously beautiful young men; outlining the plots of films about pure prostitutes and kind-hearted train-robbers; and giving directions for making bootblacks into Celebrated Scenario Authors overnight.
These authorities Eunice studied. She could, she frequently did, tell whether it was in November or December, 1905, that Mack Harker? the renowned screen cowpuncher and badman, began his public career as chorus man in "Oh, You Naughty Girlie." On the wall of her room, her father reported, she had pinned up twenty-one photographs of actors. But the signed portrait of the most graceful of the movie heroes she carried in her young bosom.
Babbitt was bewildered by this worship of new gods, and he suspected that Eunice smoked cigarettes. He smelled the cloying reek from up-stairs, and heard her giggling with Ted. He never inquired. The agreeable child dismayed him. Her thin and charming face was sharpened by bobbed hair; her skirts were short, her stockings were rolled, and, as she flew after Ted, above the caressing silk were glimpses of soft knees which made Babbitt uneasy, and wretched that she should consider him old. Sometimes, in the veiled life of his dreams, when the fairy child came running to him she took on the semblance of Eunice Littlefield.
Ted was motor-mad as Eunice was movie-mad.
A thousand sarcastic refusals did not check his teasing for a car of his own. However lax he might be about early rising and the prosody of Vergil, he was tireless in tinkering. With three other boys he bought a rheumatic Ford chassis, built an amazing racer-body out of tin and pine, went skidding round corners in the perilous craft, and sold it at a profit. Babbitt gave him a motor-cycle, and every Saturday afternoon, with seven sandwiches and a bottle of Coca-Cola in his pockets, and Eunice perched eerily on the rumble seat, he went roaring off to distant towns.
Usually Eunice and he were merely neighborhood chums, and quarreled with a wholesome and violent lack of delicacy; but now and then, after the color and scent of a dance, they were silent together and a little furtive, and Babbitt was worried.
Babbitt was an average father. He was affectionate, bullying, opinionated, ignorant, and rather wistful. Like most parents, he enjoyed the game of waiting till the victim was clearly wrong, then virtuously pouncing. He justified himself by croaking, "Well, Ted's mother spoils him. Got to be somebody who tells him what's what, and me, I'm elected the goat. Because I try to bring him up to be a real, decent, human being and not one of these sapheads and lounge-lizards, of course they all call me a grouch!"
Throughout, with the eternal human genius for arriving by the worst possible routes at surprisingly tolerable goals, Babbitt loved his son and warmed to his companionship and would have sacrificed everything for him—if he could have been sure of proper credit.
Ted was planning a party for his set in the Senior Class.
Babbitt meant to be helpful and jolly about it. From his memory of high-school pleasures back in Catawba he suggested the nicest games: Going to Boston, and charades with stew-pans for helmets, and word-games in which you were an Adjective or a Quality. When he was most enthusiastic he discovered that they weren't paying attention; they were only tolerating him. As for the party, it was as fixed and standardized as a Union Club Hop. There was to be dancing in the living-room, a noble collation in the dining-room, and in the hall two tables of bridge for what Ted called "the poor old dumb-bells that you can't get to dance hardly more 'n half the time."
Every breakfast was monopolized by conferences on the affair. No one listened to Babbitt's bulletins about the February weather or to his throat-clearing comments on the headlines. He said furiously, "If I may be PERMITTED to interrupt your engrossing private CONVERSATION—Juh hear what I SAID?"
"Oh, don't be a spoiled baby! Ted and I have just as much right to talk as you have!" flared Mrs. Babbitt.
On the night of the party he was permitted to look on, when he was not helping Matilda with the Vecchia ice cream and the petits fours. He was deeply disquieted. Eight years ago, when Verona had given a high-school party, the children had been featureless gabies. Now they were men and women of the world, very supercilious men and women; the boys condescended to Babbitt, they wore evening-clothes, and with hauteur they accepted cigarettes from silver cases. Babbitt had heard stories of what the Athletic Club called "goings on" at young parties; of girls "parking" their corsets in the dressing-room, of "cuddling" and "petting," and a presumable increase in what was known as Immorality. To-night he believed the stories. These children seemed bold to him, and cold. The girls wore misty chiffon, coral velvet, or cloth of gold, and around their dipping bobbed hair were shining wreaths. He had it, upon urgent and secret inquiry, that no corsets were known to be parked upstairs; but certainly these eager bodies were not stiff with steel. Their stockings were of lustrous silk, their slippers costly and unnatural, their lips carmined and their eyebrows penciled. They danced cheek to cheek with the boys, and Babbitt sickened with apprehension and unconscious envy.
Worst of them all was Eunice Littlefield, and maddest of all the boys was Ted. Eunice was a flying demon. She slid the length of the room; her tender shoulders swayed; her feet were deft as a weaver's shuttle; she laughed, and enticed Babbitt to dance with her.
Then he discovered the annex to the party.
The boys and girls disappeared occasionally, and he remembered rumors of their drinking together from hip-pocket flasks. He tiptoed round the house, and in each of the dozen cars waiting in the street he saw the points of light from cigarettes, from each of them heard high giggles. He wanted to denounce them but (standing in the snow, peering round the dark corner) he did not dare. He tried to be tactful. When he had returned to the front hall he coaxed the boys, "Say, if any of you fellows are thirsty, there's some dandy ginger ale."
"Oh! Thanks!" they condescended.
He sought his wife, in the pantry, and exploded, "I'd like to go in there and throw some of those young pups out of the house! They talk down to me like I was the butler! I'd like to—"
"I know," she sighed; "only everybody says, all the mothers tell me, unless you stand for them, if you get angry because they go out to their cars to have a drink, they won't come to your house any more, and we wouldn't want Ted left out of things, would we?"
He announced that he would be enchanted to have Ted left out of things, and hurried in to be polite, lest Ted be left out of things.
But, he resolved, if he found that the boys were drinking, he would—well, he'd "hand 'em something that would surprise 'em." While he was trying to be agreeable to large-shouldered young bullies he was earnestly sniffing at them Twice he caught the reek of prohibition-time whisky, but then, it was only twice—
Dr. Howard Littlefield lumbered in.
He had come, in a mood of solemn parental patronage, to look on. Ted and Eunice were dancing, moving together like one body. Littlefield gasped. He called Eunice. There was a whispered duologue, and Littlefield explained to Babbitt that Eunice's mother had a headache and needed her. She went off in tears. Babbitt looked after them furiously. "That little devil! Getting Ted into trouble! And Littlefield, the conceited old gas-bag, acting like it was Ted that was the bad influence!"
Later he smelled whisky on Ted's breath.
After the civil farewell to the guests, the row was terrific, a thorough Family Scene, like an avalanche, devastating and without reticences. Babbitt thundered, Mrs. Babbitt wept, Ted was unconvincingly defiant, and Verona in confusion as to whose side she was taking.
For several months there was coolness between the Babbitts and the Littlefields, each family sheltering their lamb from the wolf-cub next door. Babbitt and Littlefield still spoke in pontifical periods about motors and the senate, but they kept bleakly away from mention of their families. Whenever Eunice came to the house she discussed with pleasant intimacy the fact that she had been forbidden to come to the house; and Babbitt tried, with no success whatever, to be fatherly and advisory with her.
"Gosh all fishhooks!" Ted wailed to Eunice, as they wolfed hot chocolate, lumps of nougat, and an assortment of glace nuts, in the mosaic splendor of the Royal Drug Store, "it gets me why Dad doesn't just pass out from being so poky. Every evening he sits there, about half-asleep, and if Rone or I say, 'Oh, come on, let's do something,' he doesn't even take the trouble to think about it. He just yawns and says, 'Naw, this suits me right here.' He doesn't know there's any fun going on anywhere. I suppose he must do some thinking, same as you and I do, but gosh, there's no way of telling it. I don't believe that outside of the office and playing a little bum golf on Saturday he knows there's anything in the world to do except just keep sitting there-sitting there every night—not wanting to go anywhere—not wanting to do anything—thinking us kids are crazy—sitting there—Lord!"
If he was frightened by Ted's slackness, Babbitt was not sufficiently frightened by Verona. She was too safe. She lived too much in the neat little airless room of her mind. Kenneth Escott and she were always under foot. When they were not at home, conducting their cautiously radical courtship over sheets of statistics, they were trudging off to lectures by authors and Hindu philosophers and Swedish lieutenants.
"Gosh," Babbitt wailed to his wife, as they walked home from the Fogartys' bridge-party, "it gets me how Rone and that fellow can be so poky. They sit there night after night, whenever he isn't working, and they don't know there's any fun in the world. All talk and discussion—Lord! Sitting there—sitting there—night after night—not wanting to do anything—thinking I'm crazy because I like to go out and play a fist of cards—sitting there—gosh!"
Then round the swimmer, bored by struggling through the perpetual surf of family life, new combers swelled.
Babbitt's father- and mother-in-law, Mr. and Mrs. Henry T. Thompson, rented their old house in the Bellevue district and moved to the Hotel Hatton, that glorified boarding-house filled with widows, red-plush furniture, and the sound of ice-water pitchers. They were lonely there, and every other Sunday evening the Babbitts had to dine with them, on fricasseed chicken, discouraged celery, and cornstarch ice cream, and afterward sit, polite and restrained, in the hotel lounge, while a young woman violinist played songs from the German via Broadway.
Then Babbitt's own mother came down from Catawba to spend three weeks.
She was a kind woman and magnificently uncomprehending. She congratulated the convention-defying Verona on being a "nice, loyal home-body without all these Ideas that so many girls seem to have nowadays;" and when Ted filled the differential with grease, out of pure love of mechanics and filthiness, she rejoiced that he was "so handy around the house—and helping his father and all, and not going out with the girls all the time and trying to pretend he was a society fellow."
Babbitt loved his mother, and sometimes he rather liked her, but he was annoyed by her Christian Patience, and he was reduced to pulpiness when she discoursed about a quite mythical hero called "Your Father":
"You won't remember it, Georgie, you were such a little fellow at the time—my, I remember just how you looked that day, with your goldy brown curls and your lace collar, you always were such a dainty child, and kind of puny and sickly, and you loved pretty things so much and the red tassels on your little bootees and all—and Your Father was taking us to church and a man stopped us and said 'Major'—so many of the neighbors used to call Your Father 'Major;' of course he was only a private in The War but everybody knew that was because of the jealousy of his captain and he ought to have been a high-ranking officer, he had that natural ability to command that so very, very few men have—and this man came out into the road and held up his hand and stopped the buggy and said, 'Major,' he said, 'there's a lot of the folks around here that have decided to support Colonel Scanell for congress, and we want you to join us. Meeting people the way you do in the store, you could help us a lot.'
"Well, Your Father just looked at him and said, 'I certainly shall do nothing of the sort. I don't like his politics,' he said. Well, the man—Captain Smith they used to call him, and heaven only knows why, because he hadn't the shadow or vestige of a right to be called 'Captain' or any other title—this Captain Smith said, 'We'll make it hot for you if you don't stick by your friends, Major.' Well, you know how Your Father was, and this Smith knew it too; he knew what a Real Man he was, and he knew Your Father knew the political situation from A to Z, and he ought to have seen that here was one man he couldn't impose on, but he went on trying to and hinting and trying till Your Father spoke up and said to him, 'Captain Smith,' he said, 'I have a reputation around these parts for being one who is amply qualified to mind his own business and let other folks mind theirs!' and with that he drove on and left the fellow standing there in the road like a bump on a log!"
Babbitt was most exasperated when she revealed his boyhood to the children. He had, it seemed, been fond of barley-sugar; had worn the "loveliest little pink bow in his curls" and corrupted his own name to "Goo-goo." He heard (though he did not officially hear) Ted admonishing Tinka, "Come on now, kid; stick the lovely pink bow in your curls and beat it down to breakfast, or Goo-goo will jaw your head off."
Babbitt's half-brother, Martin, with his wife and youngest baby, came down from Catawba for two days. Martin bred cattle and ran the dusty general-store. He was proud of being a freeborn independent American of the good old Yankee stock; he was proud of being honest, blunt, ugly, and disagreeable. His favorite remark was "How much did you pay for that?" He regarded Verona's books, Babbitt's silver pencil, and flowers on the table as citified extravagances, and said so. Babbitt would have quarreled with him but for his gawky wife and the baby, whom Babbitt teased and poked fingers at and addressed:
"I think this baby's a bum, yes, sir, I think this little baby's a bum, he's a bum, yes, sir, he's a bum, that's what he is, he's a bum, this baby's a bum, he's nothing but an old bum, that's what he is—a bum!"
All the while Verona and Kenneth Escott held long inquiries into epistemology; Ted was a disgraced rebel; and Tinka, aged eleven, was demanding that she be allowed to go to the movies thrice a week, "like all the girls."
Babbitt raged, "I'm sick of it! Having to carry three generations. Whole damn bunch lean on me. Pay half of mother's income, listen to Henry T., listen to Myra's worrying, be polite to Mart, and get called an old grouch for trying to help the children. All of 'em depending on me and picking on me and not a damn one of 'em grateful! No relief, and no credit, and no help from anybody. And to keep it up for—good Lord, how long?"
He enjoyed being sick in February; he was delighted by their consternation that he, the rock, should give way.
He had eaten a questionable clam. For two days he was languorous and petted and esteemed. He was allowed to snarl "Oh, let me alone!" without reprisals. He lay on the sleeping-porch and watched the winter sun slide along the taut curtains, turning their ruddy khaki to pale blood red. The shadow of the draw-rope was dense black, in an enticing ripple on the canvas. He found pleasure in the curve of it, sighed as the fading light blurred it. He was conscious of life, and a little sad. With no Vergil Gunches before whom to set his face in resolute optimism, he beheld, and half admitted that he beheld, his way of life as incredibly mechanical. Mechanical business—a brisk selling of badly built houses. Mechanical religion—a dry, hard church, shut off from the real life of the streets, inhumanly respectable as a top-hat. Mechanical golf and dinner-parties and bridge and conversation. Save with Paul Riesling, mechanical friendships—back-slapping and jocular, never daring to essay the test of quietness.
He turned uneasily in bed.
He saw the years, the brilliant winter days and all the long sweet afternoons which were meant for summery meadows, lost in such brittle pretentiousness. He thought of telephoning about leases, of cajoling men he hated, of making business calls and waiting in dirty anterooms—hat on knee, yawning at fly-specked calendars, being polite to office-boys.
"I don't hardly want to go back to work," he prayed. "I'd like to—I don't know."
But he was back next day, busy and of doubtful temper.
THE Zenith Street Traction Company planned to build car-repair shops in the suburb of Dorchester, but when they came to buy the land they found it held, on options, by the Babbitt-Thompson Realty Company. The purchasing-agent, the first vice-president, and even the president of the Traction Company protested against the Babbitt price. They mentioned their duty toward stockholders, they threatened an appeal to the courts, though somehow the appeal to the courts was never carried out and the officials found it wiser to compromise with Babbitt. Carbon copies of the correspondence are in the company's files, where they may be viewed by any public commission.
Just after this Babbitt deposited three thousand dollars in the bank, the purchasing-agent of the Street Traction Company bought a five thousand dollar car, he first vice-president built a home in Devon Woods, and the president was appointed minister to a foreign country.
To obtain the options, to tie up one man's land without letting his neighbor know, had been an unusual strain on Babbitt. It was necessary to introduce rumors about planning garages and stores, to pretend that he wasn't taking any more options, to wait and look as bored as a poker-player at a time when the failure to secure a key-lot threatened his whole plan. To all this was added a nerve-jabbing quarrel with his secret associates in the deal. They did not wish Babbitt and Thompson to have any share in the deal except as brokers. Babbitt rather agreed. "Ethics of the business-broker ought to strictly represent his principles and not get in on the buying," he said to Thompson.
"Ethics, rats! Think I'm going to see that bunch of holy grafters get away with the swag and us not climb in?" snorted old Henry.
"Well, I don't like to do it. Kind of double-crossing."
"It ain't. It's triple-crossing. It's the public that gets double-crossed. Well, now we've been ethical and got it out of our systems, the question is where we can raise a loan to handle some of the property for ourselves, on the Q. T. We can't go to our bank for it. Might come out."
"I could see old Eathorne. He's close as the tomb."
"That's the stuff."
Eathorne was glad, he said, to "invest in character," to make Babbitt the loan and see to it that the loan did not appear on the books of the bank. Thus certain of the options which Babbitt and Thompson obtained were on parcels of real estate which they themselves owned, though the property did not appear in their names.
In the midst of closing this splendid deal, which stimulated business and public confidence by giving an example of increased real-estate activity, Babbitt was overwhelmed to find that he had a dishonest person working for him.
The dishonest one was Stanley Graff, the outside salesman.
For some time Babbitt had been worried about Graff. He did not keep his word to tenants. In order to rent a house he would promise repairs which the owner had not authorized. It was suspected that he juggled inventories of furnished houses so that when the tenant left he had to pay for articles which had never been in the house and the price of which Graff put into his pocket. Babbitt had not been able to prove these suspicions, and though he had rather planned to discharge Graff he had never quite found time for it.
Now into Babbitt's private room charged a red-faced man, panting, "Look here! I've come to raise particular merry hell, and unless you have that fellow pinched, I will!" "What's—Calm down, o' man. What's trouble?"
"Trouble! Huh! Here's the trouble—"
"Sit down and take it easy! They can hear you all over the building!"
"This fellow Graff you got working for you, he leases me a house. I was in yesterday and signs the lease, all O.K., and he was to get the owner's signature and mail me the lease last night. Well, and he did. This morning I comes down to breakfast and the girl says a fellow had come to the house right after the early delivery and told her he wanted an envelope that had been mailed by mistake, big long envelope with 'Babbitt-Thompson' in the corner of it. Sure enough, there it was, so she lets him have it. And she describes the fellow to me, and it was this Graff. So I 'phones to him and he, the poor fool, he admits it! He says after my lease was all signed he got a better offer from another fellow and he wanted my lease back. Now what you going to do about it?"
"Your name is—?"
"William Varney—W. K. Varney."
"Oh, yes. That was the Garrison house." Babbitt sounded the buzzer. When Miss McGoun came in, he demanded, "Graff gone out?"
"Will you look through his desk and see if there is a lease made out to Mr. Varney on the Garrison house?" To Varney: "Can't tell you how sorry I am this happened. Needless to say, I'll fire Graff the minute he comes in. And of course your lease stands. But there's one other thing I'd like to do. I'll tell the owner not to pay us the commission but apply it to your rent. No! Straight! I want to. To be frank, this thing shakes me up bad. I suppose I've always been a Practical Business Man. Probably I've told one or two fairy stories in my time, when the occasion called for it—you know: sometimes you have to lay things on thick, to impress boneheads. But this is the first time I've ever had to accuse one of my own employees of anything more dishonest than pinching a few stamps. Honest, it would hurt me if we profited by it. So you'll let me hand you the commission? Good!"
He walked through the February city, where trucks flung up a spattering of slush and the sky was dark above dark brick cornices. He came back miserable. He, who respected the law, had broken it by concealing the Federal crime of interception of the mails. But he could not see Graff go to jail and his wife suffer. Worse, he had to discharge Graff and this was a part of office routine which he feared. He liked people so much, he so much wanted them to like him that he could not bear insulting them.
Miss McGoun dashed in to whisper, with the excitement of an approaching scene, "He's here!"
"Mr. Graff? Ask him to come in."
He tried to make himself heavy and calm in his chair, and to keep his eyes expressionless. Graff stalked in—a man of thirty-five, dapper, eye-glassed, with a foppish mustache.
"Want me?" said Graff.
"Yes. Sit down."
Graff continued to stand, grunting, "I suppose that old nut Varney has been in to see you. Let me explain about him. He's a regular tightwad, and he sticks out for every cent, and he practically lied to me about his ability to pay the rent—I found that out just after we signed up. And then another fellow comes along with a better offer for the house, and I felt it was my duty to the firm to get rid of Varney, and I was so worried about it I skun up there and got back the lease. Honest, Mr. Babbitt, I didn't intend to pull anything crooked. I just wanted the firm to have all the commis—"
"Wait now, Stan. This may all be true, but I've been having a lot of complaints about you. Now I don't s'pose you ever mean to do wrong, and I think if you just get a good lesson that'll jog you up a little, you'll turn out a first-class realtor yet. But I don't see how I can keep you on."
Graff leaned against the filing-cabinet, his hands in his pockets, and laughed. "So I'm fired! Well, old Vision and Ethics, I'm tickled to death! But I don't want you to think you can get away with any holier-than-thou stuff. Sure I've pulled some raw stuff—a little of it—but how could I help it, in this office?"
"Now, by God, young man—"
"Tut, tut! Keep the naughty temper down, and don't holler, because everybody in the outside office will hear you. They're probably listening right now. Babbitt, old dear, you're crooked in the first place and a damn skinflint in the second. If you paid me a decent salary I wouldn't have to steal pennies off a blind man to keep my wife from starving. Us married just five months, and her the nicest girl living, and you keeping us flat broke all the time, you damned old thief, so you can put money away for your saphead of a son and your wishywashy fool of a daughter! Wait, now! You'll by God take it, or I'll bellow so the whole office will hear it! And crooked—Say, if I told the prosecuting attorney what I know about this last Street Traction option steal, both you and me would go to jail, along with some nice, clean, pious, high-up traction guns!"
"Well, Stan, looks like we were coming down to cases. That deal—There was nothing crooked about it. The only way you can get progress is for the broad-gauged men to get things done; and they got to be rewarded—"
"Oh, for Pete's sake, don't get virtuous on me! As I gather it, I'm fired. All right. It's a good thing for me. And if I catch you knocking me to any other firm, I'll squeal all I know about you and Henry T. and the dirty little lickspittle deals that you corporals of industry pull off for the bigger and brainier crooks, and you'll get chased out of town. And me—you're right, Babbitt, I've been going crooked, but now I'm going straight, and the first step will be to get a job in some office where the boss doesn't talk about Ideals. Bad luck, old dear, and you can stick your job up the sewer!"
Babbitt sat for a long time, alternately raging, "I'll have him arrested," and yearning "I wonder—No, I've never done anything that wasn't necessary to keep the Wheels of Progress moving."
Next day he hired in Graff's place Fritz Weilinger, the salesman of his most injurious rival, the East Side Homes and Development Company, and thus at once annoyed his competitor and acquired an excellent man. Young Fritz was a curly-headed, merry, tennis-playing youngster. He made customers welcome to the office. Babbitt thought of him as a son, and in him had much comfort.
An abandoned race-track on the outskirts of Chicago, a plot excellent for factory sites, was to be sold, and Jake Offut asked Babbitt to bid on it for him. The strain of the Street Traction deal and his disappointment in Stanley Graff had so shaken Babbitt that he found it hard to sit at his desk and concentrate. He proposed to his family, "Look here, folks! Do you know who's going to trot up to Chicago for a couple of days—just week-end; won't lose but one day of school—know who's going with that celebrated business-ambassador, George F. Babbitt? Why, Mr. Theodore Roosevelt Babbitt!"
"Hurray!" Ted shouted, and "Oh, maybe the Babbitt men won't paint that lil ole town red!"
And, once away from the familiar implications of home, they were two men together. Ted was young only in his assumption of oldness, and the only realms, apparently, in which Babbitt had a larger and more grown-up knowledge than Ted's were the details of real estate and the phrases of politics. When the other sages of the Pullman smoking-compartment had left them to themselves, Babbitt's voice did not drop into the playful and otherwise offensive tone in which one addresses children but continued its overwhelming and monotonous rumble, and Ted tried to imitate it in his strident tenor:
"Gee, dad, you certainly did show up that poor boot when he got flip about the League of Nations!"
"Well, the trouble with a lot of these fellows is, they simply don't know what they're talking about. They don't get down to facts.... What do you think of Ken Escott?"
"I'll tell you, dad: it strikes me Ken is a nice lad; no special faults except he smokes too much; but slow, Lord! Why, if we don't give him a shove the poor dumb-bell never will propose! And Rone just as bad. Slow."
"Yes, I guess you're right. They're slow. They haven't either one of 'em got our pep."
"That's right. They're slow. I swear, dad, I don't know how Rone got into our family! I'll bet, if the truth were known, you were a bad old egg when you were a kid!"
"Well, I wasn't so slow!"
"I'll bet you weren't! I'll bet you didn't miss many tricks!"
"Well, when I was out with the girls I didn't spend all the time telling 'em about the strike in the knitting industry!"
They roared together, and together lighted cigars.
"What are we going to do with 'em?" Babbitt consulted.
"Gosh, I don't know. I swear, sometimes I feel like taking Ken aside and putting him over the jumps and saying to him, 'Young fella me lad, are you going to marry young Rone, or are you going to talk her to death? Here you are getting on toward thirty, and you're only making twenty or twenty-five a week. When you going to develop a sense of responsibility and get a raise? If there's anything that George F. or I can do to help you, call on us, but show a little speed, anyway!'"
"Well, at that, it might not be so bad if you or I talked to him, except he might not understand. He's one of these high brows. He can't come down to cases and lay his cards on the table and talk straight out from the shoulder, like you or I can."
"That's right, he's like all these highbrows."
"That's so, like all of 'em."
"That's a fact."
They sighed, and were silent and thoughtful and happy.
The conductor came in. He had once called at Babbitt's office, to ask about houses. "H' are you, Mr. Babbitt! We going to have you with us to Chicago? This your boy?"
"Yes, this is my son Ted."
"Well now, what do you know about that! Here I been thinking you were a youngster yourself, not a day over forty, hardly, and you with this great big fellow!"
"Forty? Why, brother, I'll never see forty-five again!"
"Is that a fact! Wouldn't hardly 'a' thought it!"
"Yes, sir, it's a bad give-away for the old man when he has to travel with a young whale like Ted here!"
"You're right, it is." To Ted: "I suppose you're in college now?"
Proudly, "No, not till next fall. I'm just kind of giving the diff'rent colleges the once-over now."
As the conductor went on his affable way, huge watch-chain jingling against his blue chest, Babbitt and Ted gravely considered colleges. They arrived at Chicago late at night; they lay abed in the morning, rejoicing, "Pretty nice not to have to get up and get down to breakfast, heh?" They were staying at the modest Eden Hotel, because Zenith business men always stayed at the Eden, but they had dinner in the brocade and crystal Versailles Room of the Regency Hotel. Babbitt ordered Blue Point oysters with cocktail sauce, a tremendous steak with a tremendous platter of French fried potatoes, two pots of coffee, apple pie with ice cream for both of them and, for Ted, an extra piece of mince pie.
"Hot stuff! Some feed, young fella!" Ted admired.
"Huh! You stick around with me, old man, and I'll show you a good time!"
They went to a musical comedy and nudged each other at the matrimonial jokes and the prohibition jokes; they paraded the lobby, arm in arm, between acts, and in the glee of his first release from the shame which dissevers fathers and sons Ted chuckled, "Dad, did you ever hear the one about the three milliners and the judge?"
When Ted had returned to Zenith, Babbitt was lonely. As he was trying to make alliance between Offutt and certain Milwaukee interests which wanted the race-track plot, most of his time was taken up in waiting for telephone calls.... Sitting on the edge of his bed, holding the portable telephone, asking wearily, "Mr. Sagen not in yet? Didn' he leave any message for me? All right, I'll hold the wire." Staring at a stain on the wall, reflecting that it resembled a shoe, and being bored by this twentieth discovery that it resembled a shoe. Lighting a cigarette; then, bound to the telephone with no ashtray in reach, wondering what to do with this burning menace and anxiously trying to toss it into the tiled bathroom. At last, on the telephone, "No message, eh? All right, I'll call up again."
One afternoon he wandered through snow-rutted streets of which he had never heard, streets of small tenements and two-family houses and marooned cottages. It came to him that he had nothing to do, that there was nothing he wanted to do. He was bleakly lonely in the evening, when he dined by himself at the Regency Hotel. He sat in the lobby afterward, in a plush chair bedecked with the Saxe-Coburg arms, lighting a cigar and looking for some one who would come and play with him and save him from thinking. In the chair next to him (showing the arms of Lithuania) was a half-familiar man, a large red-faced man with pop eyes and a deficient yellow mustache. He seemed kind and insignificant, and as lonely as Babbitt himself. He wore a tweed suit and a reluctant orange tie.
It came to Babbitt with a pyrotechnic crash. The melancholy stranger was Sir Gerald Doak.
Instinctively Babbitt rose, bumbling, "How 're you, Sir Gerald? 'Member we met in Zenith, at Charley McKelvey's? Babbitt's my name—real estate."
"Oh! How d' you do." Sir Gerald shook hands flabbily.
Embarrassed, standing, wondering how he could retreat, Babbitt maundered, "Well, I suppose you been having a great trip since we saw you in Zenith."
"Quite. British Columbia and California and all over the place," he said doubtfully, looking at Babbitt lifelessly.
"How did you find business conditions in British Columbia? Or I suppose maybe you didn't look into 'em. Scenery and sport and so on?"
"Scenery? Oh, capital. But business conditions—You know, Mr. Babbitt, they're having almost as much unemployment as we are." Sir Gerald was speaking warmly now.
"So? Business conditions not so doggone good, eh?"
"No, business conditions weren't at all what I'd hoped to find them."
"Not good, eh?"
"No, not—not really good."
"That's a darn shame. Well—I suppose you're waiting for somebody to take you out to some big shindig, Sir Gerald."
"Shindig? Oh. Shindig. No, to tell you the truth, I was wondering what the deuce I could do this evening. Don't know a soul in Tchicahgo. I wonder if you happen to know whether there's a good theater in this city?"
"Good? Why say, they're running grand opera right now! I guess maybe you'd like that."
"Eh? Eh? Went to the opera once in London. Covent Garden sort of thing. Shocking! No, I was wondering if there was a good cinema-movie."
Babbitt was sitting down, hitching his chair over, shouting, "Movie? Say, Sir Gerald, I supposed of course you had a raft of dames waiting to lead you out to some soiree—"
"—but if you haven't, what do you say you and me go to a movie? There's a peach of a film at the Grantham: Bill Hart in a bandit picture."
"Right-o! Just a moment while I get my coat."
Swollen with greatness, slightly afraid lest the noble blood of Nottingham change its mind and leave him at any street corner, Babbitt paraded with Sir Gerald Doak to the movie palace and in silent bliss sat beside him, trying not to be too enthusiastic, lest the knight despise his adoration of six-shooters and broncos. At the end Sir Gerald murmured, "Jolly good picture, this. So awfully decent of you to take me. Haven't enjoyed myself so much for weeks. All these Hostesses—they never let you go to the cinema!"
"The devil you say!" Babbitt's speech had lost the delicate refinement and all the broad A's with which he had adorned it, and become hearty and natural. "Well, I'm tickled to death you liked it, Sir Gerald."
They crawled past the knees of fat women into the aisle; they stood in the lobby waving their arms in the rite of putting on overcoats. Babbitt hinted, "Say, how about a little something to eat? I know a place where we could get a swell rarebit, and we might dig up a little drink—that is, if you ever touch the stuff."
"Rather! But why don't you come to my room? I've some Scotch—not half bad."
"Oh, I don't want to use up all your hootch. It's darn nice of you, but—You probably want to hit the hay."
Sir Gerald was transformed. He was beefily yearning. "Oh really, now; I haven't had a decent evening for so long! Having to go to all these dances. No chance to discuss business and that sort of thing. Do be a good chap and come along. Won't you?"
"Will I? You bet! I just thought maybe—Say, by golly, it does do a fellow good, don't it, to sit and visit about business conditions, after he's been to these balls and masquerades and banquets and all that society stuff. I often feel that way in Zenith. Sure, you bet I'll come."
"That's awfully nice of you." They beamed along the street. "Look here, old chap, can you tell me, do American cities always keep up this dreadful social pace? All these magnificent parties?"
"Go on now, quit your kidding! Gosh, you with court balls and functions and everything—"
"No, really, old chap! Mother and I—Lady Doak, I should say, we usually play a hand of bezique and go to bed at ten. Bless my soul, I couldn't keep up your beastly pace! And talking! All your American women, they know so much—culture and that sort of thing. This Mrs. McKelvey—your friend—"
"Yuh, old Lucile. Good kid."
"—she asked me which of the galleries I liked best in Florence. Or was it in Firenze? Never been in Italy in my life! And primitives. Did I like primitives. Do you know what the deuce a primitive is?"
"Me? I should say not! But I know what a discount for cash is."
"Rather! So do I, by George! But primitives!"
They laughed with the sound of a Boosters' luncheon.
Sir Gerald's room was, except for his ponderous and durable English bags, very much like the room of George F. Babbitt; and quite in the manner of Babbitt he disclosed a huge whisky flask, looked proud and hospitable, and chuckled, "Say, when, old chap."
It was after the third drink that Sir Gerald proclaimed, "How do you Yankees get the notion that writing chaps like Bertrand Shaw and this Wells represent us? The real business England, we think those chaps are traitors. Both our countries have their comic Old Aristocracy—you know, old county families, hunting people and all that sort of thing—and we both have our wretched labor leaders, but we both have a backbone of sound business men who run the whole show."
"You bet. Here's to the real guys!"
"I'm with you! Here's to ourselves!"
It was after the fourth drink that Sir Gerald asked humbly, "What do you think of North Dakota mortgages?" but it was not till after the fifth that Babbitt began to call him "Jerry," and Sir Gerald confided, "I say, do you mind if I pull off my boots?" and ecstatically stretched his knightly feet, his poor, tired, hot, swollen feet out on the bed.
After the sixth, Babbitt irregularly arose. "Well, I better be hiking along. Jerry, you're a regular human being! I wish to thunder we'd been better acquainted in Zenith. Lookit. Can't you come back and stay with me a while?"
"So sorry—must go to New York to-morrow. Most awfully sorry, old boy. I haven't enjoyed an evening so much since I've been in the States. Real talk. Not all this social rot. I'd never have let them give me the beastly title—and I didn't get it for nothing, eh?—if I'd thought I'd have to talk to women about primitives and polo! Goodish thing to have in Nottingham, though; annoyed the mayor most frightfully when I got it; and of course the missus likes it. But nobody calls me 'Jerry' now—" He was almost weeping. "—and nobody in the States has treated me like a friend till to-night! Good-by, old chap, good-by! Thanks awfully!"
"Don't mention it, Jerry. And remember whenever you get to Zenith, the latch-string is always out."
"And don't forget, old boy, if you ever come to Nottingham, Mother and I will be frightfully glad to see you. I shall tell the fellows in Nottingham your ideas about Visions and Real Guys—at our next Rotary Club luncheon."
Babbitt lay abed at his hotel, imagining the Zenith Athletic Club asking him, "What kind of a time d'you have in Chicago?" and his answering, "Oh, fair; ran around with Sir Gerald Doak a lot;" picturing himself meeting Lucile McKelvey and admonishing her, "You're all right, Mrs. Mac, when you aren't trying to pull this highbrow pose. It's just as Gerald Doak says to me in Chicago—oh, yes, Jerry's an old friend of mine—the wife and I are thinking of running over to England to stay with Jerry in his castle, next year—and he said to me, 'Georgie, old bean, I like Lucile first-rate, but you and me, George, we got to make her get over this highty-tighty hooptediddle way she's got."
But that evening a thing happened which wrecked his pride.
At the Regency Hotel cigar-counter he fell to talking with a salesman of pianos, and they dined together. Babbitt was filled with friendliness and well-being. He enjoyed the gorgeousness of the dining-room: the chandeliers, the looped brocade curtains, the portraits of French kings against panels of gilded oak. He enjoyed the crowd: pretty women, good solid fellows who were "liberal spenders."
He gasped. He stared, and turned away, and stared again. Three tables off, with a doubtful sort of woman, a woman at once coy and withered, was Paul Riesling, and Paul was supposed to be in Akron, selling tar-roofing. The woman was tapping his hand, mooning at him and giggling. Babbitt felt that he had encountered something involved and harmful. Paul was talking with the rapt eagerness of a man who is telling his troubles. He was concentrated on the woman's faded eyes. Once he held her hand and once, blind to the other guests, he puckered his lips as though he was pretending to kiss her. Babbitt had so strong an impulse to go to Paul that he could feel his body uncoiling, his shoulders moving, but he felt, desperately, that he must be diplomatic, and not till he saw Paul paying the check did he bluster to the piano-salesman, "By golly-friend of mine over there—'scuse me second—just say hello to him."
He touched Paul's shoulder, and cried, "Well, when did you hit town?"
Paul glared up at him, face hardening. "Oh, hello, George. Thought you'd gone back to Zenith." He did not introduce his companion. Babbitt peeped at her. She was a flabbily pretty, weakly flirtatious woman of forty-two or three, in an atrocious flowery hat. Her rouging was thorough but unskilful.
"Where you staying, Paulibus?"
The woman turned, yawned, examined her nails. She seemed accustomed to not being introduced.
Paul grumbled, "Campbell Inn, on the South Side."
"Alone?" It sounded insinuating.
"Yes! Unfortunately!" Furiously Paul turned toward the woman, smiling with a fondness sickening to Babbitt. "May! Want to introduce you. Mrs. Arnold, this is my old-acquaintance, George Babbitt."
"Pleasmeech," growled Babbitt, while she gurgled, "Oh, I'm very pleased to meet any friend of Mr. Riesling's, I'm sure."
Babbitt demanded, "Be back there later this evening, Paul? I'll drop down and see you."
"No, better—We better lunch together to-morrow."
"All right, but I'll see you to-night, too, Paul. I'll go down to your hotel, and I'll wait for you!"
HE sat smoking with the piano-salesman, clinging to the warm refuge of gossip, afraid to venture into thoughts of Paul. He was the more affable on the surface as secretly he became more apprehensive, felt more hollow. He was certain that Paul was in Chicago without Zilla's knowledge, and that he was doing things not at all moral and secure. When the salesman yawned that he had to write up his orders, Babbitt left him, left the hotel, in leisurely calm. But savagely he said "Campbell Inn!" to the taxi-driver. He sat agitated on the slippery leather seat, in that chill dimness which smelled of dust and perfume and Turkish cigarettes. He did not heed the snowy lake-front, the dark spaces and sudden bright corners in the unknown land south of the Loop.
The office of the Campbell Inn was hard, bright, new; the night clerk harder and brighter. "Yep?" he said to Babbitt.
"Mr. Paul Riesling registered here?"
"Is he in now?"
"Then if you'll give me his key, I'll wait for him."
"Can't do that, brother. Wait down here if you wanna."
Babbitt had spoken with the deference which all the Clan of Good Fellows give to hotel clerks. Now he said with snarling abruptness:
"I may have to wait some time. I'm Riesling's brother-in-law. I'll go up to his room. D' I look like a sneak-thief?"
His voice was low and not pleasant. With considerable haste the clerk took down the key, protesting, "I never said you looked like a sneak-thief. Just rules of the hotel. But if you want to—"
On his way up in the elevator Babbitt wondered why he was here. Why shouldn't Paul be dining with a respectable married woman? Why had he lied to the clerk about being Paul's brother-in-law? He had acted like a child. He must be careful not to say foolish dramatic things to Paul. As he settled down he tried to look pompous and placid. Then the thought—Suicide. He'd been dreading that, without knowing it. Paul would be just the person to do something like that. He must be out of his head or he wouldn't be confiding in that—that dried-up hag.
Zilla (oh, damn Zilla! how gladly he'd throttle that nagging fiend of a woman!)—she'd probably succeeded at last, and driven Paul crazy.
Suicide. Out there in the lake, way out, beyond the piled ice along the shore. It would be ghastly cold to drop into the water to-night.
Or—throat cut—in the bathroom—
Babbitt flung into Paul's bathroom. It was empty. He smiled, feebly.
He pulled at his choking collar, looked at his watch, opened the window to stare down at the street, looked at his watch, tried to read the evening paper lying on the glass-topped bureau, looked again at his watch. Three minutes had gone by since he had first looked at it.
And he waited for three hours.
He was sitting fixed, chilled, when the doorknob turned. Paul came in glowering.
"Hello," Paul said. "Been waiting?"
"Yuh, little while."
"Well what? Just thought I'd drop in to see how you made out in Akron."
"I did all right. What difference does it make?"
"Why, gosh, Paul, what are you sore about?"
"What are you butting into my affairs for?"
"Why, Paul, that's no way to talk! I'm not butting into nothing. I was so glad to see your ugly old phiz that I just dropped in to say howdy."
"Well, I'm not going to have anybody following me around and trying to boss me. I've had all of that I'm going to stand!"
"Well, gosh, I'm not—"
"I didn't like the way you looked at May Arnold, or the snooty way you talked."
"Well, all right then! If you think I'm a buttinsky, then I'll just butt in! I don't know who your May Arnold is, but I know doggone good and well that you and her weren't talking about tar-roofing, no, nor about playing the violin, neither! If you haven't got any moral consideration for yourself, you ought to have some for your position in the community. The idea of your going around places gawping into a female's eyes like a love-sick pup! I can understand a fellow slipping once, but I don't propose to see a fellow that's been as chummy with me as you have getting started on the downward path and sneaking off from his wife, even as cranky a one as Zilla, to go woman-chasing—"
"Oh, you're a perfectly moral little husband!"
"I am, by God! I've never looked at any woman except Myra since I've been married—practically—and I never will! I tell you there's nothing to immorality. It don't pay. Can't you see, old man, it just makes Zilla still crankier?"
Slight of resolution as he was of body, Paul threw his snow-beaded overcoat on the floor and crouched on a flimsy cane chair. "Oh, you're an old blowhard, and you know less about morality than Tinka, but you're all right, Georgie. But you can't understand that—I'm through. I can't go Zilla's hammering any longer. She's made up her mind that I'm a devil, and—Reg'lar Inquisition. Torture. She enjoys it. It's a game to see how sore she can make me. And me, either it's find a little comfort, any comfort, anywhere, or else do something a lot worse. Now this Mrs. Arnold, she's not so young, but she's a fine woman and she understands a fellow, and she's had her own troubles."
"Yea! I suppose she's one of these hens whose husband 'doesn't understand her'!"
"I don't know. Maybe. He was killed in the war."
Babbitt lumbered up, stood beside Paul patting his shoulder, making soft apologetic noises.
"Honest, George, she's a fine woman, and she's had one hell of a time. We manage to jolly each other up a lot. We tell each other we're the dandiest pair on earth. Maybe we don't believe it, but it helps a lot to have somebody with whom you can be perfectly simple, and not all this discussing—explaining—"
"And that's as far as you go?"
"It is not! Go on! Say it!"
"Well, I don't—I can't say I like it, but—" With a burst which left him feeling large and shining with generosity, "it's none of my darn business! I'll do anything I can for you, if there's anything I can do."
"There might be. I judge from Zilla's letters that 've been forwarded from Akron that she's getting suspicious about my staying away so long. She'd be perfectly capable of having me shadowed, and of coming to Chicago and busting into a hotel dining-room and bawling me out before everybody."
"I'll take care of Zilla. I'll hand her a good fairy-story when I get back to Zenith."
"I don't know—I don't think you better try it. You're a good fellow. but I don't know that diplomacy is your strong point." Babbitt looked hurt, then irritated. "I mean with women! With women, I mean. Course they got to go some to beat you in business diplomacy, but I just mean with women. Zilla may do a lot of rough talking, but she's pretty shrewd. She'd have the story out of you in no time."
"Well, all right, but—" Babbitt was still pathetic at not being allowed to play Secret Agent. Paul soothed:
"Course maybe you might tell her you'd been in Akron and seen me there."
"Why, sure, you bet! Don't I have to go look at that candy-store property in Akron? Don't I? Ain't it a shame I have to stop off there when I'm so anxious to get home? Ain't it a regular shame? I'll say it is! I'll say it's a doggone shame!"
"Fine. But for glory hallelujah's sake don't go putting any fancy fixings on the story. When men lie they always try to make it too artistic, and that's why women get suspicious. And—Let's have a drink, Georgie. I've got some gin and a little vermouth."
The Paul who normally refused a second cocktail took a second now, and a third. He became red-eyed and thick-tongued. He was embarrassingly jocular and salacious.
In the taxicab Babbitt incredulously found tears crowding into his eyes.
He had not told Paul of his plan but he did stop at Akron, between trains, for the one purpose of sending to Zilla a postcard with "Had to come here for the day, ran into Paul." In Zenith he called on her. If for public appearances Zilla was over-coiffed, over-painted, and resolutely corseted, for private misery she wore a filthy blue dressing-gown and torn stockings thrust into streaky pink satin mules. Her face was sunken. She seemed to have but half as much hair as Babbitt remembered, and that half was stringy. She sat in a rocker amid a debris of candy-boxes and cheap magazines, and she sounded dolorous when she did not sound derisive. But Babbitt was exceedingly breezy:
"Well, well, Zil, old dear, having a good loaf while hubby's away? That's the ideal I'll bet a hat Myra never got up till ten, while I was in Chicago. Say, could I borrow your thermos—just dropped in to see if I could borrow your thermos bottle. We're going to have a toboggan party—want to take some coffee mit. Oh, did you get my card from Akron, saying I'd run into Paul?"
"Yes. What was he doing?"
"How do you mean?" He unbuttoned his overcoat, sat tentatively on the arm of a chair.
"You know how I mean!" She slapped the pages of a magazine with an irritable clatter. "I suppose he was trying to make love to some hotel waitress or manicure girl or somebody."
"Hang it, you're always letting on that Paul goes round chasing skirts. He doesn't, in the first place, and if he did, it would prob'ly be because you keep hinting at him and dinging at him so much. I hadn't meant to, Zilla, but since Paul is away, in Akron—"
"He really is in Akron? I know he has some horrible woman that he writes to in Chicago."
"Didn't I tell you I saw him in Akron? What 're you trying to do? Make me out a liar?"
"No, but I just—I get so worried."
"Now, there you are! That's what gets me! Here you love Paul, and yet you plague him and cuss him out as if you hated him. I simply can't understand why it is that the more some folks love people, the harder they try to make 'em miserable."
"You love Ted and Rone—I suppose—and yet you nag them."
"Oh. Well. That. That's different. Besides, I don't nag 'em. Not what you'd call nagging. But zize saying: Now, here's Paul, the nicest, most sensitive critter on God's green earth. You ought to be ashamed of yourself the way you pan him. Why, you talk to him like a washerwoman. I'm surprised you can act so doggone common, Zilla!"
She brooded over her linked fingers. "Oh, I know. I do go and get mean sometimes, and I'm sorry afterwards. But, oh, Georgie, Paul is so aggravating! Honestly, I've tried awfully hard, these last few years, to be nice to him, but just because I used to be spiteful—or I seemed so; I wasn't, really, but I used to speak up and say anything that came into my head—and so he made up his mind that everything was my fault. Everything can't always be my fault, can it? And now if I get to fussing, he just turns silent, oh, so dreadfully silent, and he won't look at me—he just ignores me. He simply isn't human! And he deliberately keeps it up till I bust out and say a lot of things I don't mean. So silent—Oh, you righteous men! How wicked you are! How rotten wicked!"
They thrashed things over and over for half an hour. At the end, weeping drably, Zilla promised to restrain herself.
Paul returned four days later, and the Babbitts and Rieslings went festively to the movies and had chop suey at a Chinese restaurant. As they walked to the restaurant through a street of tailor shops and barber shops, the two wives in front, chattering about cooks, Babbitt murmured to Paul, "Zil seems a lot nicer now."
"Yes, she has been, except once or twice. But it's too late now. I just—I'm not going to discuss it, but I'm afraid of her. There's nothing left. I don't ever want to see her. Some day I'm going to break away from her. Somehow."
THE International Organization of Boosters' Clubs has be come a world-force for optimism, manly pleasantry, and good business. Chapters are to be found now in thirty countries. Nine hundred and twenty of the thousand chapters, however, are in the United States.
None of these is more ardent than the Zenith Boosters' Club.
The second March lunch of the Zenith Boosters was the most important of the year, as it was to be followed by the annual election of officers. There was agitation abroad. The lunch was held in the ballroom of the O'Hearn House. As each of the four hundred Boosters entered he took from a wall-board a huge celluloid button announcing his name, his nick name, and his business. There was a fine of ten cents for calling a Fellow Booster by anything but his nickname at a lunch, and as Babbitt jovially checked his hat the air was radiant with shouts of "Hello, Chet!" and "How're you, Shorty!" and "Top o' the mornin', Mac!"
They sat at friendly tables for eight, choosing places by lot. Babbitt was with Albert Boos the merchant tailor, Hector Seybolt of the Little Sweetheart Condensed Milk Company, Emil Wengert the jeweler, Professor Pumphrey of the Riteway Business College, Dr. Walter Gorbutt, Roy Teegarten the photographer, and Ben Berkey the photo-engraver. One of the merits of the Boosters' Club was that only two persons from each department of business were permitted to join, so that you at once encountered the Ideals of other occupations, and realized the metaphysical oneness of all occupations—plumbing and portrait-painting, medicine and the manufacture of chewing-gum.
Babbitt's table was particularly happy to-day, because Professor Pumphrey had just had a birthday, and was therefore open to teasing.
"Let's pump Pump about how old he is!" said Emil Wengert.
"No, let's paddle him with a dancing-pump!" said Ben Berkey.
But it was Babbitt who had the applause, with "Don't talk about pumps to that guy! The only pump he knows is a bottle! Honest, they tell me he's starting a class in home-brewing at the ole college!"
At each place was the Boosters' Club booklet, listing the members. Though the object of the club was good-fellowship, yet they never lost sight of the importance of doing a little more business. After each name was the member's occupation. There were scores of advertisements in the booklet, and on one page the admonition: "There's no rule that you have to trade with your Fellow Boosters, but get wise, boy—what's the use of letting all this good money get outside of our happy fambly?" And at each place, to-day, there was a present; a card printed in artistic red and black: