SERVICE AND BOOSTERISM
Service finds its finest opportunity and development only in its broadest and deepest application and the consideration of its perpetual action upon reaction. I believe the highest type of Service, like the most progressive tenets of ethics, senses unceasingly and is motived by active adherence and loyalty to that which is the essential principle of Boosterism—Good Citizenship in all its factors and aspects.
Compliments of Dadbury Petersen Advertising Corp.
"Ads, not Fads, at Dad's"
The Boosters all read Mr. Peterson's aphorism and said they understood it perfectly.
The meeting opened with the regular weekly "stunts." Retiring President Vergil Gunch was in the chair, his stiff hair like a hedge, his voice like a brazen gong of festival. Members who had brought guests introduced them publicly. "This tall red-headed piece of misinformation is the sporting editor of the Press," said Willis Ijams; and H. H. Hazen, the druggist, chanted, "Boys, when you're on a long motor tour and finally get to a romantic spot or scene and draw up and remark to the wife, 'This is certainly a romantic place,' it sends a glow right up and down your vertebrae. Well, my guest to-day is from such a place, Harper's Ferry, Virginia, in the beautiful Southland, with memories of good old General Robert E. Lee and of that brave soul, John Brown who, like every good Booster, goes marching on—"
There were two especially distinguished guests: the leading man of the "Bird of Paradise" company, playing this week at the Dodsworth Theater, and the mayor of Zenith, the Hon. Lucas Prout.
Vergil Gunch thundered, "When we manage to grab this celebrated Thespian off his lovely aggregation of beautiful actresses—and I got to admit I butted right into his dressing-room and told him how the Boosters appreciated the high-class artistic performance he's giving us—and don't forget that the treasurer of the Dodsworth is a Booster and will appreciate our patronage—and when on top of that we yank Hizzonor out of his multifarious duties at City Hall, then I feel we've done ourselves proud, and Mr. Prout will now say a few words about the problems and duties—"
By rising vote the Boosters decided which was the handsomest and which the ugliest guest, and to each of them was given a bunch of carnations, donated, President Gunch noted, by Brother Booster H. G. Yeager, the Jennifer Avenue florist.
Each week, in rotation, four Boosters were privileged to obtain the pleasures of generosity and of publicity by donating goods or services to four fellow-members, chosen by lot. There was laughter, this week, when it was announced that one of the contributors was Barnabas Joy, the undertaker. Everybody whispered, "I can think of a coupla good guys to be buried if his donation is a free funeral!"
Through all these diversions the Boosters were lunching on chicken croquettes, peas, fried potatoes, coffee, apple pie, and American cheese. Gunch did not lump the speeches. Presently he called on the visiting secretary of the Zenith Rotary Club, a rival organization. The secretary had the distinction of possessing State Motor Car License Number 5.
The Rotary secretary laughingly admitted that wherever he drove in the state so low a number created a sensation, and "though it was pretty nice to have the honor, yet traffic cops remembered it only too darn well, and sometimes he didn't know but what he'd almost as soon have just plain B56,876 or something like that. Only let any doggone Booster try to get Number 5 away from a live Rotarian next year, and watch the fur fly! And if they'd permit him, he'd wind up by calling for a cheer for the Boosters and Rotarians and the Kiwanis all together!"
Babbitt sighed to Professor Pumphrey, "Be pretty nice to have as low a number as that! Everybody 'd say, 'He must be an important guy!' Wonder how he got it? I'll bet he wined and dined the superintendent of the Motor License Bureau to a fare-you-well!"
Then Chum Frink addressed them:
"Some of you may feel that it's out of place here to talk on a strictly highbrow and artistic subject, but I want to come out flatfooted and ask you boys to O.K. the proposition of a Symphony Orchestra for Zenith. Now, where a lot of you make your mistake is in assuming that if you don't like classical music and all that junk, you ought to oppose it. Now, I want to confess that, though I'm a literary guy by profession, I don't care a rap for all this long-haired music. I'd rather listen to a good jazz band any time than to some piece by Beethoven that hasn't any more tune to it than a bunch of fighting cats, and you couldn't whistle it to save your life! But that isn't the point. Culture has become as necessary an adornment and advertisement for a city to-day as pavements or bank-clearances. It's Culture, in theaters and art-galleries and so on, that brings thousands of visitors to New York every year and, to be frank, for all our splendid attainments we haven't yet got the Culture of a New York or Chicago or Boston—or at least we don't get the credit for it. The thing to do then, as a live bunch of go-getters, is to CAPITALIZE CULTURE; to go right out and grab it.
"Pictures and books are fine for those that have the time to study 'em, but they don't shoot out on the road and holler 'This is what little old Zenith can put up in the way of Culture.' That's precisely what a Symphony Orchestra does do. Look at the credit Minneapolis and Cincinnati get. An orchestra with first-class musickers and a swell conductor—and I believe we ought to do the thing up brown and get one of the highest-paid conductors on the market, providing he ain't a Hun—it goes right into Beantown and New York and Washington; it plays at the best theaters to the most cultured and moneyed people; it gives such class-advertising as a town can get in no other way; and the guy who is so short-sighted as to crab this orchestra proposition is passing up the chance to impress the glorious name of Zenith on some big New York millionaire that might-that might establish a branch factory here!
"I could also go into the fact that for our daughters who show an interest in highbrow music and may want to teach it, having an A1 local organization is of great benefit, but let's keep this on a practical basis, and I call on you good brothers to whoop it up for Culture and a World-beating Symphony Orchestra!"
To a rustle of excitement President Gunch proclaimed, "Gentlemen, we will now proceed to the annual election of officers." For each of the six offices, three candidates had been chosen by a committee. The second name among the candidates for vice-president was Babbitt's.
He was surprised. He looked self-conscious. His heart pounded. He was still more agitated when the ballots were counted and Gunch said, "It's a pleasure to announce that Georgie Babbitt will be the next assistant gavel-wielder. I know of no man who stands more stanchly for common sense and enterprise than good old George. Come on, let's give him our best long yell!"
As they adjourned, a hundred men crushed in to slap his back. He had never known a higher moment. He drove away in a blur of wonder. He lunged into his office, chuckling to Miss McGoun, "Well, I guess you better congratulate your boss! Been elected vice-president of the Boosters!"
He was disappointed. She answered only, "Yes—Oh, Mrs. Babbitt's been trying to get you on the 'phone." But the new salesman, Fritz Weilinger, said, "By golly, chief, say, that's great, that's perfectly great! I'm tickled to death! Congratulations!"
Babbitt called the house, and crowed to his wife, "Heard you were trying to get me, Myra. Say, you got to hand it to little Georgie, this time! Better talk careful! You are now addressing the vice-president of the Boosters' Club!"
"Pretty nice, huh? Willis Ijams is the new president, but when he's away, little ole Georgie takes the gavel and whoops 'em up and introduces the speakers—no matter if they're the governor himself—and—"
"—It puts him in solid with big men like Doc Dilling and—"
"George! Paul Riesling—"
"Yes, sure, I'll 'phone Paul and let him know about it right away."
"Georgie! LISTEN! Paul's in jail. He shot his wife, he shot Zilla, this noon. She may not live."
HE drove to the City Prison, not blindly, but with unusual fussy care at corners, the fussiness of an old woman potting plants. It kept him from facing the obscenity of fate.
The attendant said, "Naw, you can't see any of the prisoners till three-thirty—visiting-hour."
It was three. For half an hour Babbitt sat looking at a calendar and a clock on a whitewashed wall. The chair was hard and mean and creaky. People went through the office and, he thought, stared at him. He felt a belligerent defiance which broke into a wincing fear of this machine which was grinding Paul—Paul——
Exactly at half-past three he sent in his name.
The attendant returned with "Riesling says he don't want to see you."
"You're crazy! You didn't give him my name! Tell him it's George wants to see him, George Babbitt."
"Yuh, I told him, all right, all right! He said he didn't want to see you."
"Then take me in anyway."
"Nothing doing. If you ain't his lawyer, if he don't want to see you, that's all there is to it."
"But, my GOD—Say, let me see the warden."
"He's busy. Come on, now, you—" Babbitt reared over him. The attendant hastily changed to a coaxing "You can come back and try to-morrow. Probably the poor guy is off his nut."
Babbitt drove, not at all carefully or fussily, sliding viciously past trucks, ignoring the truckmen's curses, to the City Hall; he stopped with a grind of wheels against the curb, and ran up the marble steps to the office of the Hon. Mr. Lucas Prout, the mayor. He bribed the mayor's doorman with a dollar; he was instantly inside, demanding, "You remember me, Mr. Prout? Babbitt—vice-president of the Boosters—campaigned for you? Say, have you heard about poor Riesling? Well, I want an order on the warden or whatever you call um of the City Prison to take me back and see him. Good. Thanks."
In fifteen minutes he was pounding down the prison corridor to a cage where Paul Riesling sat on a cot, twisted like an old beggar, legs crossed, arms in a knot, biting at his clenched fist.
Paul looked up blankly as the keeper unlocked the cell, admitted Babbitt, and left them together. He spoke slowly: "Go on! Be moral!"
Babbitt plumped on the couch beside him. "I'm not going to be moral! I don't care what happened! I just want to do anything I can. I'm glad Zilla got what was coming to her."
Paul said argumentatively, "Now, don't go jumping on Zilla. I've been thinking; maybe she hasn't had any too easy a time. Just after I shot her—I didn't hardly mean to, but she got to deviling me so I went crazy, just for a second, and pulled out that old revolver you and I used to shoot rabbits with, and took a crack at her. Didn't hardly mean to—After that, when I was trying to stop the blood—It was terrible what it did to her shoulder, and she had beautiful skin—Maybe she won't die. I hope it won't leave her skin all scarred. But just afterward, when I was hunting through the bathroom for some cotton to stop the blood, I ran onto a little fuzzy yellow duck we hung on the tree one Christmas, and I remembered she and I'd been awfully happy then—Hell. I can't hardly believe it's me here." As Babbitt's arm tightened about his shoulder, Paul sighed, "I'm glad you came. But I thought maybe you'd lecture me, and when you've committed a murder, and been brought here and everything—there was a big crowd outside the apartment house, all staring, and the cops took me through it—Oh, I'm not going to talk about it any more."
But he went on, in a monotonous, terrified insane mumble. To divert him Babbitt said, "Why, you got a scar on your cheek."
"Yes. That's where the cop hit me. I suppose cops get a lot of fun out of lecturing murderers, too. He was a big fellow. And they wouldn't let me help carry Zilla down to the ambulance."
"Paul! Quit it! Listen: she won't die, and when it's all over you and I'll go off to Maine again. And maybe we can get that May Arnold to go along. I'll go up to Chicago and ask her. Good woman, by golly. And afterwards I'll see that you get started in business out West somewhere, maybe Seattle—they say that's a lovely city."
Paul was half smiling. It was Babbitt who rambled now. He could not tell whether Paul was heeding, but he droned on till the coming of Paul's lawyer, P. J. Maxwell, a thin, busy, unfriendly man who nodded at Babbitt and hinted, "If Riesling and I could be alone for a moment—"
Babbitt wrung Paul's hands, and waited in the office till Maxwell came pattering out. "Look, old man, what can I do?" he begged.
"Nothing. Not a thing. Not just now," said Maxwell. "Sorry. Got to hurry. And don't try to see him. I've had the doctor give him a shot of morphine, so he'll sleep."
It seemed somehow wicked to return to the office. Babbitt felt as though he had just come from a funeral. He drifted out to the City Hospital to inquire about Zilla. She was not likely to die, he learned. The bullet from Paul's huge old .44 army revolver had smashed her shoulder and torn upward and out.
He wandered home and found his wife radiant with the horified interest we have in the tragedies of our friends. "Of course Paul isn't altogether to blame, but this is what comes of his chasing after other women instead of bearing his cross in a Christian way," she exulted.
He was too languid to respond as he desired. He said what was to be said about the Christian bearing of crosses, and went out to clean the car. Dully, patiently, he scraped linty grease from the drip-pan, gouged at the mud caked on the wheels. He used up many minutes in washing his hands; scoured them with gritty kitchen soap; rejoiced in hurting his plump knuckles. "Damn soft hands—like a woman's. Aah!"
At dinner, when his wife began the inevitable, he bellowed, "I forbid any of you to say a word about Paul! I'll 'tend to all the talking about this that's necessary, hear me? There's going to be one house in this scandal-mongering town to-night that isn't going to spring the holier-than-thou. And throw those filthy evening papers out of the house!"
But he himself read the papers, after dinner.
Before nine he set out for the house of Lawyer Maxwell. He was received without cordiality. "Well?" said Maxwell.
"I want to offer my services in the trial. I've got an idea. Why couldn't I go on the stand and swear I was there, and she pulled the gun first and he wrestled with her and the gun went off accidentally?"
"And perjure yourself?"
"Huh? Yes, I suppose it would be perjury. Oh—Would it help?"
"But, my dear fellow! Perjury!"
"Oh, don't be a fool! Excuse me, Maxwell; I didn't mean to get your goat. I just mean: I've known and you've known many and many a case of perjury, just to annex some rotten little piece of real estate, and here where it's a case of saving Paul from going to prison, I'd perjure myself black in the face."
"No. Aside from the ethics of the matter, I'm afraid it isn't practicable. The prosecutor would tear your testimony to pieces. It's known that only Riesling and his wife were there at the time."
"Then, look here! Let me go on the stand and swear—and this would be the God's truth—that she pestered him till he kind of went crazy."
"No. Sorry. Riesling absolutely refuses to have any testimony reflecting on his wife. He insists on pleading guilty."
"Then let me get up and testify something—whatever you say. Let me do SOMETHING!"
"I'm sorry, Babbitt, but the best thing you can do—I hate to say it, but you could help us most by keeping strictly out of it."
Babbitt, revolving his hat like a defaulting poor tenant, winced so visibly that Maxwell condescended:
"I don't like to hurt your feelings, but you see we both want to do our best for Riesling, and we mustn't consider any other factor. The trouble with you, Babbitt, is that you're one of these fellows who talk too readily. You like to hear your own voice. If there were anything for which I could put you in the witness-box, you'd get going and give the whole show away. Sorry. Now I must look over some papers—So sorry."
He spent most of the next morning nerving himself to face the garrulous world of the Athletic Club. They would talk about Paul; they would be lip-licking and rotten. But at the Roughnecks' Table they did not mention Paul. They spoke with zeal of the coming baseball season. He loved them as he never had before.
He had, doubtless from some story-book, pictured Paul's trial as a long struggle, with bitter arguments, a taut crowd, and sudden and overwhelming new testimony. Actually, the trial occupied less than fifteen minutes, largely filled with the evidence of doctors that Zilla would recover and that Paul must have been temporarily insane. Next day Paul was sentenced to three years in the State Penitentiary and taken off—quite undramatically, not handcuffed, merely plodding in a tired way beside a cheerful deputy sheriff—and after saying good-by to him at the station Babbitt returned to his office to realize that he faced a world which, without Paul, was meaningless.
HE was busy, from March to June. He kept himself from the bewilderment of thinking. His wife and the neighbors were generous. Every evening he played bridge or attended the movies, and the days were blank of face and silent.
In June, Mrs. Babbitt and Tinka went East, to stay with relatives, and Babbitt was free to do—he was not quite sure what.
All day long after their departure he thought of the emancipated house in which he could, if he desired, go mad and curse the gods without having to keep up a husbandly front. He considered, "I could have a reg'lar party to-night; stay out till two and not do any explaining afterwards. Cheers!" He telephoned to Vergil Gunch, to Eddie Swanson. Both of them were engaged for the evening, and suddenly he was bored by having to take so much trouble to be riotous.
He was silent at dinner, unusually kindly to Ted and Verona, hesitating but not disapproving when Verona stated her opinion of Kenneth Escott's opinion of Dr. John Jennison Drew's opinion of the opinions of the evolutionists. Ted was working in a garage through the summer vacation, and he related his daily triumphs: how he had found a cracked ball-race, what he had said to the Old Grouch, what he had said to the foreman about the future of wireless telephony.
Ted and Verona went to a dance after dinner. Even the maid was out. Rarely had Babbitt been alone in the house for an entire evening. He was restless. He vaguely wanted something more diverting than the newspaper comic strips to read. He ambled up to Verona's room, sat on her maidenly blue and white bed, humming and grunting in a solid-citizen manner as he examined her books: Conrad's "Rescue," a volume strangely named "Figures of Earth," poetry (quite irregular poetry, Babbitt thought) by Vachel Lindsay, and essays by H. L. Mencken—highly improper essays, making fun of the church and all the decencies. He liked none of the books. In them he felt a spirit of rebellion against niceness and solid-citizenship. These authors—and he supposed they were famous ones, too—did not seem to care about telling a good story which would enable a fellow to forget his troubles. He sighed. He noted a book, "The Three Black Pennies," by Joseph Hergesheimer. Ah, that was something like it! It would be an adventure story, maybe about counterfeiting—detectives sneaking up on the old house at night. He tucked the book under his arm, he clumped down-stairs and solemnly began to read, under the piano-lamp:
"A twilight like blue dust sifted into the shallow fold of the thickly wooded hills. It was early October, but a crisping frost had already stamped the maple trees with gold, the Spanish oaks were hung with patches of wine red, the sumach was brilliant in the darkening underbrush. A pattern of wild geese, flying low and unconcerned above the hills, wavered against the serene ashen evening. Howat Penny, standing in the comparative clearing of a road, decided that the shifting regular flight would not come close enough for a shot.... He had no intention of hunting the geese. With the drooping of day his keenness had evaporated; an habitual indifference strengthened, permeating him...."
There it was again: discontent with the good common ways. Babbitt laid down the book and listened to the stillness. The inner doors of the house were open. He heard from the kitchen the steady drip of the refrigerator, a rhythm demanding and disquieting. He roamed to the window. The summer evening was foggy and, seen through the wire screen, the street lamps were crosses of pale fire. The whole world was abnormal. While he brooded, Verona and Ted came in and went up to bed. Silence thickened in the sleeping house. He put on his hat, his respectable derby, lighted a cigar, and walked up and down before the house, a portly, worthy, unimaginative figure, humming "Silver Threads among the Gold." He casually considered, "Might call up Paul." Then he remembered. He saw Paul in a jailbird's uniform, but while he agonized he didn't believe the tale. It was part of the unreality of this fog-enchanted evening.
If she were here Myra would be hinting, "Isn't it late, Georgie?" He tramped in forlorn and unwanted freedom. Fog hid the house now. The world was uncreated, a chaos without turmoil or desire.
Through the mist came a man at so feverish a pace that he seemed to dance with fury as he entered the orb of glow from a street-lamp. At each step he brandished his stick and brought it down with a crash. His glasses on their broad pretentious ribbon banged against his stomach. Babbitt incredulously saw that it was Chum Frink.
Frink stopped, focused his vision, and spoke with gravity:
"There's another fool. George Babbitt. Lives for renting howshes—houses. Know who I am? I'm traitor to poetry. I'm drunk. I'm talking too much. I don't care. Know what I could 've been? I could 've been a Gene Field or a James Whitcomb Riley. Maybe a Stevenson. I could 've. Whimsies. 'Magination. Lissen. Lissen to this. Just made it up:
Glittering summery meadowy noise Of beetles and bums and respectable boys.
Hear that? Whimzh—whimsy. I made that up. I don't know what it means! Beginning good verse. Chile's Garden Verses. And whadi write? Tripe! Cheer-up poems. All tripe! Could have written—Too late!"
He darted on with an alarming plunge, seeming always to pitch forward yet never quite falling. Babbitt would have been no more astonished and no less had a ghost skipped out of the fog carrying his head. He accepted Frink with vast apathy; he grunted, "Poor boob!" and straightway forgot him.
He plodded into the house, deliberately went to the refrigerator and rifled it. When Mrs. Babbitt was at home, this was one of the major household crimes. He stood before the covered laundry tubs, eating a chicken leg and half a saucer of raspberry jelly, and grumbling over a clammy cold boiled potato. He was thinking. It was coming to him that perhaps all life as he knew it and vigorously practised it was futile; that heaven as portrayed by the Reverend Dr. John Jennison Drew was neither probable nor very interesting; that he hadn't much pleasure out of making money; that it was of doubtful worth to rear children merely that they might rear children who would rear children. What was it all about? What did he want?
He blundered into the living-room, lay on the davenport, hands behind his head.
What did he want? Wealth? Social position? Travel? Servants? Yes, but only incidentally.
"I give it up," he sighed.
But he did know that he wanted the presence of Paul Riesling; and from that he stumbled into the admission that he wanted the fairy girl—in the flesh. If there had been a woman whom he loved, he would have fled to her, humbled his forehead on her knees.
He thought of his stenographer, Miss McGoun. He thought of the prettiest of the manicure girls at the Hotel Thornleigh barber shop. As he fell asleep on the davenport he felt that he had found something in life, and that he had made a terrifying, thrilling break with everything that was decent and normal.
He had forgotten, next morning, that he was a conscious rebel, but he was irritable in the office and at the eleven o'clock drive of telephone calls and visitors he did something he had often desired and never dared: he left the office without excuses to those stave-drivers his employees, and went to the movies. He enjoyed the right to be alone. He came out with a vicious determination to do what he pleased.
As he approached the Roughnecks' Table at the club, everybody laughed.
"Well, here's the millionaire!" said Sidney Finkelstein.
"Yes, I saw him in his Locomobile!" said Professor Pumphrey.
"Gosh, it must be great to be a smart guy like Georgie!" moaned Vergil Gunch. "He's probably stolen all of Dorchester. I'd hate to leave a poor little defenseless piece of property lying around where he could get his hooks on it!"
They had, Babbitt perceived, "something on him." Also, they "had their kidding clothes on." Ordinarily he would have been delighted at the honor implied in being chaffed, but he was suddenly touchy. He grunted, "Yuh, sure; maybe I'll take you guys on as office boys!" He was impatient as the jest elaborately rolled on to its denouement.
"Of course he may have been meeting a girl," they said, and "No, I think he was waiting for his old roommate, Sir Jerusalem Doak."
He exploded, "Oh, spring it, spring it, you boneheads! What's the great joke?"
"Hurray! George is peeved!" snickered Sidney Finkelstein, while a grin went round the table. Gunch revealed the shocking truth: He had seen Babbitt coming out of a motion-picture theater—at noon!
They kept it up. With a hundred variations, a hundred guffaws, they said that he had gone to the movies during business-hours. He didn't so much mind Gunch, but he was annoyed by Sidney Finkelstein, that brisk, lean, red-headed explainer of jokes. He was bothered, too, by the lump of ice in his glass of water. It was too large; it spun round and burned his nose when he tried to drink. He raged that Finkelstein was like that lump of ice. But he won through; he kept up his banter till they grew tired of the superlative jest and turned to the great problems of the day.
He reflected, "What's the matter with me to-day? Seems like I've got an awful grouch. Only they talk so darn much. But I better steer careful and keep my mouth shut."
As they lighted their cigars he mumbled, "Got to get back," and on a chorus of "If you WILL go spending your mornings with lady ushers at the movies!" he escaped. He heard them giggling. He was embarrassed. While he was most bombastically agreeing with the coat-man that the weather was warm, he was conscious that he was longing to run childishly with his troubles to the comfort of the fairy child.
He kept Miss McGoun after he had finished dictating. He searched for a topic which would warm her office impersonality into friendliness.
"Where you going on your vacation?" he purred.
"I think I'll go up-state to a farm do you want me to have the Siddons lease copied this afternoon?"
"Oh, no hurry about it.... I suppose you have a great time when you get away from us cranks in the office."
She rose and gathered her pencils. "Oh, nobody's cranky here I think I can get it copied after I do the letters."
She was gone. Babbitt utterly repudiated the view that he had been trying to discover how approachable was Miss McGoun. "Course! knew there was nothing doing!" he said.
Eddie Swanson, the motor-car agent who lived across the street from Babbitt, was giving a Sunday supper. His wife Louetta, young Louetta who loved jazz in music and in clothes and laughter, was at her wildest. She cried, "We'll have a real party!" as she received the guests. Babbitt had uneasily felt that to many men she might be alluring; now he admitted that to himself she was overwhelmingly alluring. Mrs. Babbitt had never quite approved of Louetta; Babbitt was glad that she was not here this evening.
He insisted on helping Louetta in the kitchen: taking the chicken croquettes from the warming-oven, the lettuce sandwiches from the ice-box. He held her hand, once, and she depressingly didn't notice it. She caroled, "You're a good little mother's-helper, Georgie. Now trot in with the tray and leave it on the side-table."
He wished that Eddie Swanson would give them cocktails; that Louetta would have one. He wanted—Oh, he wanted to be one of these Bohemians you read about. Studio parties. Wild lovely girls who were independent. Not necessarily bad. Certainly not! But not tame, like Floral Heights. How he'd ever stood it all these years—
Eddie did not give them cocktails. True, they supped with mirth, and with several repetitions by Orville Jones of "Any time Louetta wants to come sit on my lap I'll tell this sandwich to beat it!" but they were respectable, as befitted Sunday evening. Babbitt had discreetly preempted a place beside Louetta on the piano bench. While he talked about motors, while he listened with a fixed smile to her account of the film she had seen last Wednesday, while he hoped that she would hurry up and finish her description of the plot, the beauty of the leading man, and the luxury of the setting, he studied her. Slim waist girdled with raw silk, strong brows, ardent eyes, hair parted above a broad forehead—she meant youth to him and a charm which saddened. He thought of how valiant a companion she would be on a long motor tour, exploring mountains, picnicking in a pine grove high above a valley. Her frailness touched him; he was angry at Eddie Swanson for the incessant family bickering. All at once he identified Louetta with the fairy girl. He was startled by the conviction that they had always had a romantic attraction for each other.
"I suppose you're leading a simply terrible life, now you're a widower," she said.
"You bet! I'm a bad little fellow and proud of it. Some evening you slip Eddie some dope in his coffee and sneak across the road and I'll show you how to mix a cocktail," he roared.
"Well, now, I might do it! You never can tell!"
"Well, whenever you're ready, you just hang a towel out of the attic window and I'll jump for the gin!"
Every one giggled at this naughtiness. In a pleased way Eddie Swanson stated that he would have a physician analyze his coffee daily. The others were diverted to a discussion of the more agreeable recent murders, but Babbitt drew Louetta back to personal things:
"That's the prettiest dress I ever saw in my life."
"Do you honestly like it?"
"Like it? Why, say, I'm going to have Kenneth Escott put a piece in the paper saying that the swellest dressed woman in the U. S. is Mrs. E. Louetta Swanson."
"Now, you stop teasing me!" But she beamed. "Let's dance a little. George, you've got to dance with me."
Even as he protested, "Oh, you know what a rotten dancer I am!" he was lumbering to his feet.
"I'll teach you. I can teach anybody."
Her eyes were moist, her voice was jagged with excitement. He was convinced that he had won her. He clasped her, conscious of her smooth warmth, and solemnly he circled in a heavy version of the one-step. He bumped into only one or two people. "Gosh, I'm not doing so bad; hittin' 'em up like a regular stage dancer!" he gloated; and she answered busily, "Yes—yes—I told you I could teach anybody—DON'T TAKE SUCH LONG STEPS!"
For a moment he was robbed of confidence; with fearful concentration he sought to keep time to the music. But he was enveloped again by her enchantment. "She's got to like me; I'll make her!" he vowed. He tried to kiss the lock beside her ear. She mechanically moved her head to avoid it, and mechanically she murmured, "Don't!"
For a moment he hated her, but after the moment he was as urgent as ever. He danced with Mrs. Orville Jones, but he watched Louetta swooping down the length of the room with her husband. "Careful! You're getting foolish!" he cautioned himself, the while he hopped and bent his solid knees in dalliance with Mrs. Jones, and to that worthy lady rumbled, "Gee, it's hot!" Without reason, he thought of Paul in that shadowy place where men never dance. "I'm crazy to-night; better go home," he worried, but he left Mrs. Jones and dashed to Louetta's lovely side, demanding, "The next is mine."
"Oh, I'm so hot; I'm not going to dance this one."
"Then," boldly, "come out and sit on the porch and get all nice and cool."
In the tender darkness, with the clamor in the house behind them, he resolutely took her hand. She squeezed his once, then relaxed.
"Louetta! I think you're the nicest thing I know!"
"Well, I think you're very nice."
"Do you? You got to like me! I'm so lonely!"
"Oh, you'll be all right when your wife comes home."
"No, I'm always lonely."
She clasped her hands under her chin, so that he dared not touch her. He sighed:
"When I feel punk and—" He was about to bring in the tragedy of Paul, but that was too sacred even for the diplomacy of love. "—when I get tired out at the office and everything, I like to look across the street and think of you. Do you know I dreamed of you, one time!"
"Was it a nice dream?"
"Oh, well, they say dreams go by opposites! Now I must run in."
She was on her feet.
"Oh, don't go in yet! Please, Louetta!"
"Yes, I must. Have to look out for my guests."
"Let 'em look out for 'emselves!"
"I couldn't do that." She carelessly tapped his shoulder and slipped away.
But after two minutes of shamed and childish longing to sneak home he was snorting, "Certainly I wasn't trying to get chummy with her! Knew there was nothing doing, all the time!" and he ambled in to dance with Mrs. Orville Jones, and to avoid Louetta, virtuously and conspicuously.
HIS visit to Paul was as unreal as his night of fog and questioning. Unseeing he went through prison corridors stinking of carbolic acid to a room lined with pale yellow settees pierced in rosettes, like the shoe-store benches he had known as a boy. The guard led in Paul. Above his uniform of linty gray, Paul's face was pale and without expression. He moved timorously in response to the guard's commands; he meekly pushed Babbitt's gifts of tobacco and magazines across the table to the guard for examination. He had nothing to say but "Oh, I'm getting used to it" and "I'm working in the tailor shop; the stuff hurts my fingers."
Babbitt knew that in this place of death Paul was already dead. And as he pondered on the train home something in his own self seemed to have died: a loyal and vigorous faith in the goodness of the world, a fear of public disfavor, a pride in success. He was glad that his wife was away. He admitted it without justifying it. He did not care.
Her card read "Mrs. Daniel Judique." Babbitt knew of her as the widow of a wholesale paper-dealer. She must have been forty or forty-two but he thought her younger when he saw her in the office, that afternoon. She had come to inquire about renting an apartment, and he took her away from the unskilled girl accountant. He was nervously attracted by her smartness. She was a slender woman, in a black Swiss frock dotted with white, a cool-looking graceful frock. A broad black hat shaded her face. Her eyes were lustrous, her soft chin of an agreeable plumpness, and her cheeks an even rose. Babbitt wondered afterward if she was made up, but no man living knew less of such arts.
She sat revolving her violet parasol. Her voice was appealing without being coy. "I wonder if you can help me?"
"I've looked everywhere and—I want a little flat, just a bedroom, or perhaps two, and sitting-room and kitchenette and bath, but I want one that really has some charm to it, not these dingy places or these new ones with terrible gaudy chandeliers. And I can't pay so dreadfully much. My name's Tanis Judique."
"I think maybe I've got just the thing for you. Would you like to chase around and look at it now?"
"Yes. I have a couple of hours."
In the new Cavendish Apartments, Babbitt had a flat which he had been holding for Sidney Finkelstein, but at the thought of driving beside this agreeable woman he threw over his friend Finkelstein, and with a note of gallantry he proclaimed, "I'll let you see what I can do!"
He dusted the seat of the car for her, and twice he risked death in showing off his driving.
"You do know how to handle a car!" she said.
He liked her voice. There was, he thought, music in it and a hint of culture, not a bouncing giggle like Louetta Swanson's.
He boasted, "You know, there's a lot of these fellows that are so scared and drive so slow that they get in everybody's way. The safest driver is a fellow that knows how to handle his machine and yet isn't scared to speed up when it's necessary, don't you think so?"
"I bet you drive like a wiz."
"Oh, no—I mean—not really. Of course, we had a car—I mean, before my husband passed on—and I used to make believe drive it, but I don't think any woman ever learns to drive like a man."
"Well, now, there's some mighty good woman drivers."
"Oh, of course, these women that try to imitate men, and play golf and everything, and ruin their complexions and spoil their hands!"
"That's so. I never did like these mannish females."
"I mean—of course, I admire them, dreadfully, and I feel so weak and useless beside them."
"Oh, rats now! I bet you play the piano like a wiz."
"Oh, no—I mean—not really."
"Well, I'll bet you do!" He glanced at her smooth hands, her diamond and ruby rings. She caught the glance, snuggled her hands together with a kittenish curving of slim white fingers which delighted him, and yearned:
"I do love to play—I mean—I like to drum on the piano, but I haven't had any real training. Mr. Judique used to say I would 've been a good pianist if I'd had any training, but then, I guess he was just flattering me."
"I'll bet he wasn't! I'll bet you've got temperament."
"Oh—Do you like music, Mr Babbitt?"
"You bet I do! Only I don't know 's I care so much for all this classical stuff."
"Oh, I do! I just love Chopin and all those."
"Do you, honest? Well, of course, I go to lots of these highbrow concerts, but I do like a good jazz orchestra, right up on its toes, with the fellow that plays the bass fiddle spinning it around and beating it up with the bow."
"Oh, I know. I do love good dance music. I love to dance, don't you, Mr. Babbitt?"
"Sure, you bet. Not that I'm very darn good at it, though."
"Oh, I'm sure you are. You ought to let me teach you. I can teach anybody to dance."
"Would you give me a lesson some time?"
"Indeed I would."
"Better be careful, or I'll be taking you up on that proposition. I'll be coming up to your flat and making you give me that lesson."
"Ye-es." She was not offended, but she was non-committal. He warned himself, "Have some sense now, you chump! Don't go making a fool of yourself again!" and with loftiness he discoursed:
"I wish I could dance like some of these young fellows, but I'll tell you: I feel it's a man's place to take a full, you might say, a creative share in the world's work and mold conditions and have something to show for his life, don't you think so?"
"Oh, I do!"
"And so I have to sacrifice some of the things I might like to tackle, though I do, by golly, play about as good a game of golf as the next fellow!"
"Oh, I'm sure you do.... Are you married?"
"Uh—yes.... And, uh, of course official duties I'm the vice-president of the Boosters' Club, and I'm running one of the committees of the State Association of Real Estate Boards, and that means a lot of work and responsibility—and practically no gratitude for it."
"Oh, I know! Public men never do get proper credit."
They looked at each other with a high degree of mutual respect, and at the Cavendish Apartments he helped her out in a courtly manner, waved his hand at the house as though he were presenting it to her, and ponderously ordered the elevator boy to "hustle and get the keys." She stood close to him in the elevator, and he was stirred but cautious.
It was a pretty flat, of white woodwork and soft blue walls. Mrs. Judique gushed with pleasure as she agreed to take it, and as they walked down the hall to the elevator she touched his sleeve, caroling, "Oh, I'm so glad I went to you! It's such a privilege to meet a man who really Understands. Oh! The flats SOME people have showed me!"
He had a sharp instinctive belief that he could put his arm around her, but he rebuked himself and with excessive politeness he saw her to the car, drove her home. All the way back to his office he raged:
"Glad I had some sense for once.... Curse it, I wish I'd tried. She's a darling! A corker! A reg'lar charmer! Lovely eyes and darling lips and that trim waist—never get sloppy, like some women.... No, no, no! She's a real cultured lady. One of the brightest little women I've met these many moons. Understands about Public Topics and—But, darn it, why didn't I try? . . . Tanis!"
He was harassed and puzzled by it, but he found that he was turning toward youth, as youth. The girl who especially disturbed him—though he had never spoken to her—was the last manicure girl on the right in the Pompeian Barber Shop. She was small, swift, black-haired, smiling. She was nineteen, perhaps, or twenty. She wore thin salmon-colored blouses which exhibited her shoulders and her black-ribboned camisoles.
He went to the Pompeian for his fortnightly hair-trim. As always, he felt disloyal at deserting his neighbor, the Reeves Building Barber Shop. Then, for the first time, he overthrew his sense of guilt. "Doggone it, I don't have to go here if I don't want to! I don't own the Reeves Building! These barbers got nothing on me! I'll doggone well get my hair cut where I doggone well want to! Don't want to hear anything more about it! I'm through standing by people—unless I want to. It doesn't get you anywhere. I'm through!"
The Pompeian Barber Shop was in the basement of the Hotel Thornleigh, largest and most dynamically modern hotel in Zenith. Curving marble steps with a rail of polished brass led from the hotel-lobby down to the barber shop. The interior was of black and white and crimson tiles, with a sensational ceiling of burnished gold, and a fountain in which a massive nymph forever emptied a scarlet cornucopia. Forty barbers and nine manicure girls worked desperately, and at the door six colored porters lurked to greet the customers, to care reverently for their hats and collars, to lead them to a place of waiting where, on a carpet like a tropic isle in the stretch of white stone floor, were a dozen leather chairs and a table heaped with magazines.
Babbitt's porter was an obsequious gray-haired negro who did him an honor highly esteemed in the land of Zenith—greeted him by name. Yet Babbitt was unhappy. His bright particular manicure girl was engaged. She was doing the nails of an overdressed man and giggling with him. Babbitt hated him. He thought of waiting, but to stop the powerful system of the Pompeian was inconceivable, and he was instantly wafted into a chair.
About him was luxury, rich and delicate. One votary was having a violet-ray facial treatment, the next an oil shampoo. Boys wheeled about miraculous electrical massage-machines. The barbers snatched steaming towels from a machine like a howitzer of polished nickel and disdainfully flung them away after a second's use. On the vast marble shelf facing the chairs were hundreds of tonics, amber and ruby and emerald. It was flattering to Babbitt to have two personal slaves at once—the barber and the bootblack. He would have been completely happy if he could also have had the manicure girl. The barber snipped at his hair and asked his opinion of the Havre de Grace races, the baseball season, and Mayor Prout. The young negro bootblack hummed "The Camp Meeting Blues" and polished in rhythm to his tune, drawing the shiny shoe-rag so taut at each stroke that it snapped like a banjo string. The barber was an excellent salesman. He made Babbitt feel rich and important by his manner of inquiring, "What is your favorite tonic, sir? Have you time to-day, sir, for a facial massage? Your scalp is a little tight; shall I give you a scalp massage?"
Babbitt's best thrill was in the shampoo. The barber made his hair creamy with thick soap, then (as Babbitt bent over the bowl, muffled in towels) drenched it with hot water which prickled along his scalp, and at last ran the water ice-cold. At the shock, the sudden burning cold on his skull, Babbitt's heart thumped, his chest heaved, and his spine was an electric wire. It was a sensation which broke the monotony of life. He looked grandly about the shop as he sat up. The barber obsequiously rubbed his wet hair and bound it in a towel as in a turban, so that Babbitt resembled a plump pink calif on an ingenious and adjustable throne. The barber begged (in the manner of one who was a good fellow yet was overwhelmed by the splendors of the calif), "How about a little Eldorado Oil Rub, sir? Very beneficial to the scalp, sir. Didn't I give you one the last time?"
He hadn't, but Babbitt agreed, "Well, all right."
With quaking eagerness he saw that his manicure girl was free.
"I don't know, I guess I'll have a manicure after all," he droned, and excitedly watched her coming, dark-haired, smiling, tender, little. The manicuring would have to be finished at her table, and he would be able to talk to her without the barber listening. He waited contentedly, not trying to peep at her, while she filed his nails and the barber shaved him and smeared on his burning cheeks all the interesting mixtures which the pleasant minds of barbers have devised through the revolving ages. When the barber was done and he sat opposite the girl at her table, he admired the marble slab of it, admired the sunken set bowl with its tiny silver taps, and admired himself for being able to frequent so costly a place. When she withdrew his wet hand from the bowl, it was so sensitive from the warm soapy water that he was abnormally aware of the clasp of her firm little paw. He delighted in the pinkness and glossiness of her nails. Her hands seemed to him more adorable than Mrs. Judique's thin fingers, and more elegant. He had a certain ecstasy in the pain when she gnawed at the cuticle of his nails with a sharp knife. He struggled not to look at the outline of her young bosom and her shoulders, the more apparent under a film of pink chiffon. He was conscious of her as an exquisite thing, and when he tried to impress his personality on her he spoke as awkwardly as a country boy at his first party:
"Well, kinda hot to be working to-day."
"Oh, yes, it is hot. You cut your own nails, last time, didn't you!"
"Ye-es, guess I must 've."
"You always ought to go to a manicure."
"Yes, maybe that's so. I—"
"There's nothing looks so nice as nails that are looked after good. I always think that's the best way to spot a real gent. There was an auto salesman in here yesterday that claimed you could always tell a fellow's class by the car he drove, but I says to him, 'Don't be silly,' I says; 'the wisenheimers grab a look at a fellow's nails when they want to tell if he's a tin-horn or a real gent!"'
"Yes, maybe there's something to that. Course, that is—with a pretty kiddy like you, a man can't help coming to get his mitts done."
"Yeh, I may be a kid, but I'm a wise bird, and I know nice folks when I see um—I can read character at a glance—and I'd never talk so frank with a fellow if I couldn't see he was a nice fellow."
She smiled. Her eyes seemed to him as gentle as April pools. With great seriousness he informed himself that "there were some roughnecks who would think that just because a girl was a manicure girl and maybe not awful well educated, she was no good, but as for him, he was a democrat, and understood people," and he stood by the assertion that this was a fine girl, a good girl—but not too uncomfortably good. He inquired in a voice quick with sympathy:
"I suppose you have a lot of fellows who try to get fresh with you."
"Say, gee, do I! Say, listen, there's some of these cigar-store sports that think because a girl's working in a barber shop, they can get away with anything. The things they saaaaaay! But, believe me, I know how to hop those birds! I just give um the north and south and ask um, 'Say, who do you think you're talking to?' and they fade away like love's young nightmare and oh, don't you want a box of nail-paste? It will keep the nails as shiny as when first manicured, harmless to apply and lasts for days."
"Sure, I'll try some. Say—Say, it's funny; I've been coming here ever since the shop opened and—" With arch surprise. "—I don't believe I know your name!"
"Don't you? My, that's funny! I don't know yours!"
"Now you quit kidding me! What's the nice little name?"
"Oh, it ain't so darn nice. I guess it's kind of kike. But my folks ain't kikes. My papa's papa was a nobleman in Poland, and there was a gentleman in here one day, he was kind of a count or something—"
"Kind of a no-account, I guess you mean!"
"Who's telling this, smarty? And he said he knew my papa's papa's folks in Poland and they had a dandy big house. Right on a lake!" Doubtfully, "Maybe you don't believe it?"
"Sure. No. Really. Sure I do. Why not? Don't think I'm kidding you, honey, but every time I've noticed you I've said to myself, 'That kid has Blue Blood in her veins!'"
"Did you, honest?"
"Honest I did. Well, well, come on—now we're friends—what's the darling little name?"
"Ida Putiak. It ain't so much-a-much of a name. I always say to Ma, I say, 'Ma, why didn't you name me Doloress or something with some class to it?'"
"Well, now, I think it's a scrumptious name. Ida!"
"I bet I know your name!"
"Well, now, not necessarily. Of course—Oh, it isn't so specially well known."
"Aren't you Mr. Sondheim that travels for the Krackajack Kitchen Kutlery Ko.?"
"I am not! I'm Mr. Babbitt, the real-estate broker!"
"Oh, excuse me! Oh, of course. You mean here in Zenith."
"Yep." With the briskness of one whose feelings have been hurt.
"Oh, sure. I've read your ads. They're swell."
"Um, well—You might have read about my speeches."
"Course I have! I don't get much time to read but—I guess you think I'm an awfully silly little nit!"
"I think you're a little darling!"
"Well—There's one nice thing about this job. It gives a girl a chance to meet some awfully nice gentlemen and improve her mind with conversation, and you get so you can read a guy's character at the first glance."
"Look here, Ida; please don't think I'm getting fresh—" He was hotly reflecting that it would be humiliating to be rejected by this child, and dangerous to be accepted. If he took her to dinner, if he were seen by censorious friends—But he went on ardently: "Don't think I'm getting fresh if I suggest it would be nice for us to go out and have a little dinner together some evening."
"I don't know as I ought to but—My gentleman-friend's always wanting to take me out. But maybe I could to-night."
There was no reason, he assured himself, why he shouldn't have a quiet dinner with a poor girl who would benefit by association with an educated and mature person like himself. But, lest some one see them and not understand, he would take her to Biddlemeier's Inn, on the outskirts of the city. They would have a pleasant drive, this hot lonely evening, and he might hold her hand—no, he wouldn't even do that. Ida was complaisant; her bare shoulders showed it only too clearly; but he'd be hanged if he'd make love to her merely because she expected it.
Then his car broke down; something had happened to the ignition. And he HAD to have the car this evening! Furiously he tested the spark-plugs, stared at the commutator. His angriest glower did not seem to stir the sulky car, and in disgrace it was hauled off to a garage. With a renewed thrill he thought of a taxicab. There was something at once wealthy and interestingly wicked about a taxicab.
But when he met her, on a corner two blocks from the Hotel Thornleigh, she said, "A taxi? Why, I thought you owned a car!"
"I do. Of course I do! But it's out of commission to-night."
"Oh," she remarked, as one who had heard that tale before.
All the way out to Biddlemeier's Inn he tried to talk as an old friend, but he could not pierce the wall of her words. With interminable indignation she narrated her retorts to "that fresh head-barber" and the drastic things she would do to him if he persisted in saying that she was "better at gassing than at hoof-paring."
At Biddlemeier's Inn they were unable to get anything to drink. The head-waiter refused to understand who George F. Babbitt was. They sat steaming before a vast mixed grill, and made conversation about baseball. When he tried to hold Ida's hand she said with bright friendliness, "Careful! That fresh waiter is rubbering." But they came out into a treacherous summer night, the air lazy and a little moon above transfigured maples.
"Let's drive some other place, where we can get a drink and dance!" he demanded.
"Sure, some other night. But I promised Ma I'd be home early to-night."
"Rats! It's too nice to go home."
"I'd just love to, but Ma would give me fits."
He was trembling. She was everything that was young and exquisite. He put his arm about her. She snuggled against his shoulder, unafraid, and he was triumphant. Then she ran down the steps of the Inn, singing, "Come on, Georgie, we'll have a nice drive and get cool."
It was a night of lovers. All along the highway into Zenith, under the low and gentle moon, motors were parked and dim figures were clasped in revery. He held out hungry hands to Ida, and when she patted them he was grateful. There was no sense of struggle and transition; he kissed her and simply she responded to his kiss, they two behind the stolid back of the chauffeur.
Her hat fell off, and she broke from his embrace to reach for it.
"Oh, let it be!" he implored.
"Huh? My hat? Not a chance!"
He waited till she had pinned it on, then his arm sank about her. She drew away from it, and said with maternal soothing, "Now, don't be a silly boy! Mustn't make Ittle Mama scold! Just sit back, dearie, and see what a swell night it is. If you're a good boy, maybe I'll kiss you when we say nighty-night. Now give me a cigarette."
He was solicitous about lighting her cigarette and inquiring as to her comfort. Then he sat as far from her as possible. He was cold with failure. No one could have told Babbitt that he was a fool with more vigor, precision, and intelligence than he himself displayed. He reflected that from the standpoint of the Rev. Dr. John Jennison Drew he was a wicked man, and from the standpoint of Miss Ida Putiak, an old bore who had to be endured as the penalty attached to eating a large dinner.
"Dearie, you aren't going to go and get peevish, are you?"
She spoke pertly. He wanted to spank her. He brooded, "I don't have to take anything off this gutter-pup! Darn immigrant! Well, let's get it over as quick as we can, and sneak home and kick ourselves for the rest of the night."
He snorted, "Huh? Me peevish? Why, you baby, why should I be peevish? Now, listen, Ida; listen to Uncle George. I want to put you wise about this scrapping with your head-barber all the time. I've had a lot of experience with employees, and let me tell you it doesn't pay to antagonize—"
At the drab wooden house in which she lived he said good-night briefly and amiably, but as the taxicab drove off he was praying "Oh, my God!"
HE awoke to stretch cheerfully as he listened to the sparrows, then to remember that everything was wrong; that he was determined to go astray, and not in the least enjoying the process. Why, he wondered, should he be in rebellion? What was it all about? "Why not be sensible; stop all this idiotic running around, and enjoy himself with his family, his business, the fellows at the club?" What was he getting out of rebellion? Misery and shame—the shame of being treated as an offensive small boy by a ragamuffin like Ida Putiak! And yet—Always he came back to "And yet." Whatever the misery, he could not regain contentment with a world which, once doubted, became absurd.
Only, he assured himself, he was "through with this chasing after girls."
By noontime he was not so sure even of that. If in Miss McGoun, Louetta Swanson, and Ida he had failed to find the lady kind and lovely, it did not prove that she did not exist. He was hunted by the ancient thought that somewhere must exist the not impossible she who would understand him, value him, and make him happy.
Mrs. Babbitt returned in August.
On her previous absences he had missed her reassuring buzz and of her arrival he had made a fete. Now, though he dared not hurt her by letting a hint of it appear in his letters, he was sorry that she was coming before he had found himself, and he was embarrassed by the need of meeting her and looking joyful.
He loitered down to the station; he studied the summer-resort posters, lest he have to speak to acquaintances and expose his uneasiness. But he was well trained. When the train clanked in he was out on the cement platform, peering into the chair-cars, and as he saw her in the line of passengers moving toward the vestibule he waved his hat. At the door he embraced her, and announced, "Well, well, well, well, by golly, you look fine, you look fine." Then he was aware of Tinka. Here was something, this child with her absurd little nose and lively eyes, that loved him, believed him great, and as he clasped her, lifted and held her till she squealed, he was for the moment come back to his old steady self.
Tinka sat beside him in the car, with one hand on the steering-wheel, pretending to help him drive, and he shouted back to his wife, "I'll bet the kid will be the best chuffer in the family! She holds the wheel like an old professional!"
All the while he was dreading the moment when he would be alone with his wife and she would patiently expect him to be ardent.
There was about the house an unofficial theory that he was to take his vacation alone, to spend a week or ten days in Catawba, but he was nagged by the memory that a year ago he had been with Paul in Maine. He saw himself returning; finding peace there, and the presence of Paul, in a life primitive and heroic. Like a shock came the thought that he actually could go. Only, he couldn't, really; he couldn't leave his business, and "Myra would think it sort of funny, his going way off there alone. Course he'd decided to do whatever he darned pleased, from now on, but still—to go way off to Maine!"
He went, after lengthy meditations.
With his wife, since it was inconceivable to explain that he was going to seek Paul's spirit in the wilderness, he frugally employed the lie prepared over a year ago and scarcely used at all. He said that he had to see a man in New York on business. He could not have explained even to himself why he drew from the bank several hundred dollars more than he needed, nor why he kissed Tinka so tenderly, and cried, "God bless you, baby!" From the train he waved to her till she was but a scarlet spot beside the brown bulkier presence of Mrs. Babbitt, at the end of a steel and cement aisle ending in vast barred gates. With melancholy he looked back at the last suburb of Zenith.
All the way north he pictured the Maine guides: simple and strong and daring, jolly as they played stud-poker in their unceiled shack, wise in woodcraft as they tramped the forest and shot the rapids. He particularly remembered Joe Paradise, half Yankee, half Indian. If he could but take up a backwoods claim with a man like Joe, work hard with his hands, be free and noisy in a flannel shirt, and never come back to this dull decency!
Or, like a trapper in a Northern Canada movie, plunge through the forest, make camp in the Rockies, a grim and wordless caveman! Why not? He COULD do it! There'd be enough money at home for the family to live on till Verona was married and Ted self-supporting. Old Henry T. would look out for them. Honestly! Why NOT? Really LIVE—
He longed for it, admitted that he longed for it, then almost believed that he was going lo do it. Whenever common sense snorted, "Nonsense! Folks don't run away from decent families and partners; just simply don't do it, that's all!" then Babbitt answered pleadingly, "Well, it wouldn't take any more nerve than for Paul to go to jail and—Lord, how I'd' like to do it! Moccasins-six-gun-frontier town-gamblers—sleep under the stars—be a regular man, with he-men like Joe Paradise—gosh!"
So he came to Maine, again stood on the wharf before the camp-hotel, again spat heroically into the delicate and shivering water, while the pines rustled, the mountains glowed, and a trout leaped and fell in a sliding circle. He hurried to the guides' shack as to his real home, his real friends, long missed. They would be glad to see him. They would stand up and shout? "Why, here's Mr. Babbitt! He ain't one of these ordinary sports! He's a real guy!"
In their boarded and rather littered cabin the guides sat about the greasy table playing stud-poker with greasy cards: half a dozen wrinkled men in old trousers and easy old felt hats. They glanced up and nodded. Joe Paradise, the swart aging man with the big mustache, grunted, "How do. Back again?"
Silence, except for the clatter of chips.
Babbitt stood beside them, very lonely. He hinted, after a period of highly concentrated playing, "Guess I might take a hand, Joe."
"Sure. Sit in. How many chips you want? Let's see; you were here with your wife, last year, wa'n't you?" said Joe Paradise.
That was all of Babbitt's welcome to the old home.
He played for half an hour before he spoke again. His head was reeking with the smoke of pipes and cheap cigars, and he was weary of pairs and four-flushes, resentful of the way in which they ignored him. He flung at Joe:
"Like to guide me for a few days?"
"Well, jus' soon. I ain't engaged till next week."
Only thus did Joe recognize the friendship Babbitt was offering him. Babbitt paid up his losses and left the shack rather childishly. Joe raised his head from the coils of smoke like a seal rising from surf, grunted, "I'll come 'round t'morrow," and dived down to his three aces.
Neither in his voiceless cabin, fragrant with planks of new-cut pine, nor along the lake, nor in the sunset clouds which presently eddied behind the lavender-misted mountains, could Babbitt find the spirit of Paul as a reassuring presence. He was so lonely that after supper he stopped to talk with an ancient old lady, a gasping and steadily discoursing old lady, by the stove in the hotel-office. He told her of Ted's presumable future triumphs in the State University and of Tinka's remarkable vocabulary till he was homesick for the home he had left forever.
Through the darkness, through that Northern pine-walled silence, he blundered down to the lake-front and found a canoe. There were no paddles in it but with a board, sitting awkwardly amidships and poking at the water rather than paddling, he made his way far out on the lake. The lights of the hotel and the cottages became yellow dots, a cluster of glow-worms at the base of Sachem Mountain. Larger and ever more imperturbable was the mountain in the star-filtered darkness, and the lake a limitless pavement of black marble. He was dwarfed and dumb and a little awed, but that insignificance freed him from the pomposities of being Mr. George F. Babbitt of Zenith; saddened and freed his heart. Now he was conscious of the presence of Paul, fancied him (rescued from prison, from Zilla and the brisk exactitudes of the tar-roofing business) playing his violin at the end of the canoe. He vowed, "I will go on! I'll never go back! Now that Paul's out of it, I don't want to see any of those damn people again! I was a fool to get sore because Joe Paradise didn't jump up and hug me. He's one of these woodsmen; too wise to go yelping and talking your arm off like a cityman. But get him back in the mountains, out on the trail—! That's real living!"
Joe reported at Babbitt's cabin at nine the next morning. Babbitt greeted him as a fellow caveman:
"Well, Joe, how d' you feel about hitting the trail, and getting away from these darn soft summerites and these women and all?"
"All right, Mr. Babbitt."
"What do you say we go over to Box Car Pond—they tell me the shack there isn't being used—and camp out?"
"Well, all right, Mr. Babbitt, but it's nearer to Skowtuit Pond, and you can get just about as good fishing there."
"No, I want to get into the real wilds."
"Well, all right."
"We'll put the old packs on our backs and get into the woods and really hike."
"I think maybe it would be easier to go by water, through Lake Chogue. We can go all the way by motor boat—flat-bottom boat with an Evinrude."
"No, sir! Bust up the quiet with a chugging motor? Not on your life! You just throw a pair of socks in the old pack, and tell 'em what you want for eats. I'll be ready soon 's you are."
"Most of the sports go by boat, Mr. Babbitt. It's a long walk.
"Look here, Joe: are you objecting to walking?"
"Oh, no, I guess I can do it. But I haven't tramped that far for sixteen years. Most of the sports go by boat. But I can do it if you say so—I guess." Joe walked away in sadness.
Babbitt had recovered from his touchy wrath before Joe returned. He pictured him as warming up and telling the most entertaining stories. But Joe had not yet warmed up when they took the trail. He persistently kept behind Babbitt, and however much his shoulders ached from the pack, however sorely he panted, Babbitt could hear his guide panting equally. But the trail was satisfying: a path brown with pine-needles and rough with roots, among the balsams, the ferns, the sudden groves of white birch. He became credulous again, and rejoiced in sweating. When he stopped to rest he chuckled, "Guess we're hitting it up pretty good for a couple o' old birds, eh?"
"Uh-huh," admitted Joe.
"This is a mighty pretty place. Look, you can see the lake down through the trees. I tell you, Joe, you don't appreciate how lucky you are to live in woods like this, instead of a city with trolleys grinding and typewriters clacking and people bothering the life out of you all the time! I wish I knew the woods like you do. Say, what's the name of that little red flower?"
Rubbing his back, Joe regarded the flower resentfully "Well, some folks call it one thing and some calls it another I always just call it Pink Flower."
Babbitt blessedly ceased thinking as tramping turned into blind plodding. He was submerged in weariness. His plump legs seemed to go on by themselves, without guidance, and he mechanically wiped away the sweat which stung his eyes. He was too tired to be consciously glad as, after a sun-scourged mile of corduroy tote-road through a swamp where flies hovered over a hot waste of brush, they reached the cool shore of Box Car Pond. When he lifted the pack from his back he staggered from the change in balance, and for a moment could not stand erect. He lay beneath an ample-bosomed maple tree near the guest-shack, and joyously felt sleep running through his veins.
He awoke toward dusk, to find Joe efficiently cooking bacon and eggs and flapjacks for supper, and his admiration of the woodsman returned. He sat on a stump and felt virile.
"Joe, what would you do if you had a lot of money? Would you stick to guiding, or would you take a claim 'way back in the woods and be independent of people?"
For the first time Joe brightened. He chewed his cud a second, and bubbled, "I've often thought of that! If I had the money, I'd go down to Tinker's Falls and open a swell shoe store."
After supper Joe proposed a game of stud-poker but Babbitt refused with brevity, and Joe contentedly went to bed at eight. Babbitt sat on the stump, facing the dark pond, slapping mosquitos. Save the snoring guide, there was no other human being within ten miles. He was lonelier than he had ever been in his life. Then he was in Zenith.
He was worrying as to whether Miss McGoun wasn't paying too much for carbon paper. He was at once resenting and missing the persistent teasing at the Roughnecks' Table. He was wondering what Zilla Riesling was doing now. He was wondering whether, after the summer's maturity of being a garageman, Ted would "get busy" in the university. He was thinking of his wife. "If she would only—if she wouldn't be so darn satisfied with just settling down—No! I won't! I won't go back! I'll be fifty in three years. Sixty in thirteen years. I'm going to have some fun before it's too late. I don't care! I will!"
He thought of Ida Putiak, of Louetta Swanson, of that nice widow—what was her name?—Tanis Judique?—the one for whom he'd found the flat. He was enmeshed in imaginary conversations. Then:
"Gee, I can't seem to get away from thinking about folks!"
Thus it came to him merely to run away was folly, because he could never run away from himself.
That moment he started for Zenith. In his journey there was no appearance of flight, but he was fleeing, and four days afterward he was on the Zenith train. He knew that he was slinking back not because it was what he longed to do but because it was all he could do. He scanned again his discovery that he could never run away from Zenith and family and office, because in his own brain he bore the office and the family and every street and disquiet and illusion of Zenith.
"But I'm going to—oh, I'm going to start something!" he vowed, and he tried to make it valiant.
As he walked through the train, looking for familiar faces, he saw only one person whom he knew, and that was Seneca Doane, the lawyer who, after the blessings of being in Babbitt's own class at college and of becoming a corporation-counsel, had turned crank, had headed farmer-labor tickets and fraternized with admitted socialists. Though he was in rebellion, naturally Babbitt did not care to be seen talking with such a fanatic, but in all the Pullmans he could find no other acquaintance, and reluctantly he halted. Seneca Doane was a slight, thin-haired man, rather like Chum Frink except that he hadn't Frink's grin. He was reading a book called "The Way of All Flesh." It looked religious to Babbitt, and he wondered if Doane could possibly have been converted and turned decent and patriotic.
"Why, hello, Doane," he said.
Doane looked up. His voice was curiously kind. "Oh! How do, Babbitt."
"Been away, eh?"
"Yes, I've been in Washington."
"Washington, eh? How's the old Government making out?"
"It's—Won't you sit down?"
"Thanks. Don't care if I do. Well, well! Been quite a while since I've had a good chance to talk to you, Doane. I was, uh—Sorry you didn't turn up at the last class-dinner."
"How's the unions coming? Going to run for mayor again?" Doane seemed restless. He was fingering the pages of his book. He said "I might" as though it didn't mean anything in particular, and he smiled.
Babbitt liked that smile, and hunted for conversation: "Saw a bang-up cabaret in New York: the 'Good-Morning Cutie' bunch at the Hotel Minton."
"Yes, they're pretty girls. I danced there one evening."
"Oh. Like dancing?"
"Naturally. I like dancing and pretty women and good food better than anything else in the world. Most men do."
"But gosh, Doane, I thought you fellows wanted to take all the good eats and everything away from us."
"No. Not at all. What I'd like to see is the meetings of the Garment Workers held at the Ritz, with a dance afterward. Isn't that reasonable?"
"Yuh, might be good idea, all right. Well—Shame I haven't seen more of you, recent years. Oh, say, hope you haven't held it against me, my bucking you as mayor, going on the stump for Prout. You see, I'm an organization Republican, and I kind of felt—"
"There's no reason why you shouldn't fight me. I have no doubt you're good for the Organization. I remember—in college you were an unusually liberal, sensitive chap. I can still recall your saying to me that you were going to be a lawyer, and take the cases of the poor for nothing, and fight the rich. And I remember I said I was going to be one of the rich myself, and buy paintings and live at Newport. I'm sure you inspired us all."
"Well.... Well.... I've always aimed to be liberal." Babbitt was enormously shy and proud and self-conscious; he tried to look like the boy he had been a quarter-century ago, and he shone upon his old friend Seneca Doane as he rumbled, "Trouble with a lot of these fellows, even the live wires and some of 'em that think they're forward-looking, is they aren't broad-minded and liberal. Now, I always believe in giving the other fellow a chance, and listening to his ideas."
"Tell you how I figure it: A little opposition is good for all of us, so a fellow, especially if he's a business man and engaged in doing the work of the world, ought to be liberal."
"I always say a fellow ought to have Vision and Ideals. I guess some of the fellows in my business think I'm pretty visionary, but I just let 'em think what they want to and go right on—same as you do.... By golly, this is nice to have a chance to sit and visit and kind of, you might say, brush up on our ideals."
"But of course we visionaries do rather get beaten. Doesn't it bother you?"
"Not a bit! Nobody can dictate to me what I think!"
"You're the man I want to help me. I want you to talk to some of the business men and try to make them a little more liberal in their attitude toward poor Beecher Ingram."
"Ingram? But, why, he's this nut preacher that got kicked out of the Congregationalist Church, isn't he, and preaches free love and sedition?"
This, Doane explained, was indeed the general conception of Beecher Ingram, but he himself saw Beecher Ingram as a priest of the brotherhood of man, of which Babbitt was notoriously an upholder. So would Babbitt keep his acquaintances from hounding Ingram and his forlorn little church?
"You bet! I'll call down any of the boys I hear getting funny about Ingram," Babbitt said affectionately to his dear friend Doane.
Doane warmed up and became reminiscent. He spoke of student days in Germany, of lobbying for single tax in Washington, of international labor conferences. He mentioned his friends, Lord Wycombe, Colonel Wedgwood, Professor Piccoli. Babbitt had always supposed that Doane associated only with the I. W. W., but now he nodded gravely, as one who knew Lord Wycombes by the score, and he got in two references to Sir Gerald Doak. He felt daring and idealistic and cosmopolitan.
Suddenly, in his new spiritual grandeur, he was sorry for Zilla Riesling, and understood her as these ordinary fellows at the Boosters' Club never could.
Five hours after he had arrived in Zenith and told his wife how hot it was in New York, he went to call on Zilla. He was buzzing with ideas and forgiveness. He'd get Paul released; he'd do things, vague but highly benevolent things, for Zilla; he'd be as generous as his friend Seneca Doane.
He had not seen Zilla since Paul had shot her, and he still pictured her as buxom, high-colored, lively, and a little blowsy. As he drove up to her boarding-house, in a depressing back street below the wholesale district, he stopped in discomfort. At an upper window, leaning on her elbow, was a woman with the features of Zilla, but she was bloodless and aged, like a yellowed wad of old paper crumpled into wrinkles. Where Zilla had bounced and jiggled, this woman was dreadfully still.
He waited half an hour before she came into the boarding-house parlor. Fifty times he opened the book of photographs of the Chicago World's Fair of 1893, fifty times he looked at the picture of the Court of Honor.
He was startled to find Zilla in the room. She wore a black streaky gown which she had tried to brighten with a girdle of crimson ribbon. The ribbon had been torn and patiently mended. He noted this carefully, because he did not wish to look at her shoulders. One shoulder was lower than the other; one arm she carried in contorted fashion, as though it were paralyzed; and behind a high collar of cheap lace there was a gouge in the anemic neck which had once been shining and softly plump.
"Yes?" she said.
"Well, well, old Zilla! By golly, it's good to see you again!"
"He can send his messages through a lawyer."
"Why, rats, Zilla, I didn't come just because of him. Came as an old friend."
"You waited long enough!"
"Well, you know how it is. Figured you wouldn't want to see a friend of his for quite some time and—Sit down, honey! Let's be sensible. We've all of us done a bunch of things that we hadn't ought to, but maybe we can sort of start over again. Honest, Zilla, I'd like to do something to make you both happy. Know what I thought to-day? Mind you, Paul doesn't know a thing about this—doesn't know I was going to come see you. I got to thinking: Zilla's a fine? big-hearted woman, and she'll understand that, uh, Paul's had his lesson now. Why wouldn't it be a fine idea if you asked the governor to pardon him? Believe he would, if it came from you. No! Wait! Just think how good you'd feel if you were generous."
"Yes, I wish to be generous." She was sitting primly, speaking icily. "For that reason I wish to keep him in prison, as an example to evil-doers. I've gotten religion, George, since the terrible thing that man did to me. Sometimes I used to be unkind, and I wished for worldly pleasures, for dancing and the theater. But when I was in the hospital the pastor of the Pentecostal Communion Faith used to come to see me, and he showed me, right from the prophecies written in the Word of God, that the Day of Judgment is coming and all the members of the older churches are going straight to eternal damnation, because they only do lip-service and swallow the world, the flesh, and the devil—"
For fifteen wild minutes she talked, pouring out admonitions to flee the wrath to come, and her face flushed, her dead voice recaptured something of the shrill energy of the old Zilla. She wound up with a furious:
"It's the blessing of God himself that Paul should be in prison now, and torn and humbled by punishment, so that he may yet save his soul, and so other wicked men, these horrible chasers after women and lust, may have an example."
Babbitt had itched and twisted. As in church he dared not move during the sermon so now he felt that he must seem attentive, though her screeching denunciations flew past him like carrion birds.
He sought to be calm and brotherly:
"Yes, I know, Zilla. But gosh, it certainly is the essence of religion to be charitable, isn't it? Let me tell you how I figure it: What we need in the world is liberalism, liberality, if we're going to get anywhere. I've always believed in being broad-minded and liberal—"
"You? Liberal?" It was very much the old Zilla. "Why, George Babbitt, you're about as broad-minded and liberal as a razor-blade!"
"Oh, I am, am I! Well, just let me tell you, just—let me—tell—you, I'm as by golly liberal as you are religious, anyway! YOU RELIGIOUS!"
"I am so! Our pastor says I sustain him in the faith!"
"I'll bet you do! With Paul's money! But just to show you how liberal I am, I'm going to send a check for ten bucks to this Beecher Ingram, because a lot of fellows are saying the poor cuss preaches sedition and free love, and they're trying to run him out of town."
"And they're right! They ought to run him out of town! Why, he preaches—if you can call it preaching—in a theater, in the House of Satan! You don't know what it is to find God, to find peace, to behold the snares that the devil spreads out for our feet. Oh, I'm so glad to see the mysterious purposes of God in having Paul harm me and stop my wickedness—and Paul's getting his, good and plenty, for the cruel things he did to me, and I hope he DIES in prison!"
Babbitt was up, hat in hand, growling, "Well, if that's what you call being at peace, for heaven's sake just warn me before you go to war, will you?"
Vast is the power of cities to reclaim the wanderer. More than mountains or the shore-devouring sea, a city retains its character, imperturbable, cynical, holding behind apparent changes its essential purpose. Though Babbitt had deserted his family and dwelt with Joe Paradise in the wilderness, though he had become a liberal, though he had been quite sure, on the night before he reached Zenith, that neither he nor the city would be the same again, ten days after his return he could not believe that he had ever been away. Nor was it at all evident to his acquaintances that there was a new George F. Babbitt, save that he was more irritable under the incessant chaffing at the Athletic Club, and once, when Vergil Gunch observed that Seneca Doane ought to be hanged, Babbitt snorted, "Oh, rats, he's not so bad."
At home he grunted "Eh?" across the newspaper to his commentatory wife, and was delighted by Tinka's new red tam o'shanter, and announced, "No class to that corrugated iron garage. Have to build me a nice frame one."
Verona and Kenneth Escott appeared really to be engaged. In his newspaper Escott had conducted a pure-food crusade against commission-houses. As a result he had been given an excellent job in a commission-house, and he was making a salary on which he could marry, and denouncing irresponsible reporters who wrote stories criticizing commission-houses without knowing what they were talking about.
This September Ted had entered the State University as a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences. The university was at Mohalis only fifteen miles from Zenith, and Ted often came down for the week-end. Babbitt was worried. Ted was "going in for" everything but books. He had tried to "make" the football team as a light half-back, he was looking forward to the basket-ball season, he was on the committee for the Freshman Hop, and (as a Zenithite, an aristocrat among the yokels) he was being "rushed" by two fraternities. But of his studies Babbitt could learn nothing save a mumbled, "Oh, gosh, these old stiffs of teachers just give you a lot of junk about literature and economics."
One week-end Ted proposed, "Say, Dad, why can't I transfer over from the College to the School of Engineering and take mechanical engineering? You always holler that I never study, but honest, I would study there."
"No, the Engineering School hasn't got the standing the College has," fretted Babbitt.
"I'd like to know how it hasn't! The Engineers can play on any of the teams!"
There was much explanation of the "dollars-and-cents value of being known as a college man when you go into the law," and a truly oratorical account of the lawyer's life. Before he was through with it, Babbitt had Ted a United States Senator.
Among the great lawyers whom he mentioned was Seneca Doane.
"But, gee whiz," Ted marveled, "I thought you always said this Doane was a reg'lar nut!"
"That's no way to speak of a great man! Doane's always been a good friend of mine—fact I helped him in college—I started him out and you might say inspired him. Just because he's sympathetic with the aims of Labor, a lot of chumps that lack liberality and broad-mindedness think he's a crank, but let me tell you there's mighty few of 'em that rake in the fees he does, and he's a friend of some of the strongest; most conservative men in the world—like Lord Wycombe, this, uh, this big English nobleman that's so well known. And you now, which would you rather do: be in with a lot of greasy mechanics and laboring-men, or chum up to a real fellow like Lord Wycombe, and get invited to his house for parties?"
"Well—gosh," sighed Ted.
The next week-end he came in joyously with, "Say, Dad, why couldn't I take mining engineering instead of the academic course? You talk about standing—maybe there isn't much in mechanical engineering, but the Miners, gee, they got seven out of eleven in the new elections to Nu Tau Tau!"
THE strike which turned Zenith into two belligerent camps; white and red, began late in September with a walk-out of telephone girls and linemen, in protest against a reduction of wages. The newly formed union of dairy-products workers went out, partly in sympathy and partly in demand for a forty-four hour week. They were followed by the truck-drivers' union. Industry was tied up, and the whole city was nervous with talk of a trolley strike, a printers' strike, a general strike. Furious citizens, trying to get telephone calls through strike-breaking girls, danced helplessly. Every truck that made its way from the factories to the freight-stations was guarded by a policeman, trying to look stoical beside the scab driver. A line of fifty trucks from the Zenith Steel and Machinery Company was attacked by strikers-rushing out from the sidewalk, pulling drivers from the seats, smashing carburetors and commutators, while telephone girls cheered from the walk, and small boys heaved bricks.
The National Guard was ordered out. Colonel Nixon, who in private life was Mr. Caleb Nixon, secretary of the Pullmore Tractor Company, put on a long khaki coat and stalked through crowds, a .44 automatic in hand. Even Babbitt's friend, Clarence Drum the shoe merchant—a round and merry man who told stories at the Athletic Club, and who strangely resembled a Victorian pug-dog—was to be seen as a waddling but ferocious captain, with his belt tight about his comfortable little belly, and his round little mouth petulant as he piped to chattering groups on corners. "Move on there now! I can't have any of this loitering!"
Every newspaper in the city, save one, was against the strikers. When mobs raided the news-stands, at each was stationed a militiaman, a young, embarrassed citizen-soldier with eye-glasses, bookkeeper or grocery-clerk in private life, trying to look dangerous while small boys yelped, "Get onto de tin soldier!" and striking truck-drivers inquired tenderly, "Say, Joe, when I was fighting in France, was you in camp in the States or was you doing Swede exercises in the Y. M. C. A.? Be careful of that bayonet, now, or you'll cut yourself!"
There was no one in Zenith who talked of anything but the strike, and no one who did not take sides. You were either a courageous friend of Labor, or you were a fearless supporter of the Rights of Property; and in either case you were belligerent, and ready to disown any friend who did not hate the enemy.
A condensed-milk plant was set afire—each side charged it to the other—and the city was hysterical.
And Babbitt chose this time to be publicly liberal.
He belonged to the sound, sane, right-thinking wing, and at first he agreed that the Crooked Agitators ought to be shot. He was sorry when his friend, Seneca Doane, defended arrested strikers, and he thought of going to Doane and explaining about these agitators, but when he read a broadside alleging that even on their former wages the telephone girls had been hungry, he was troubled. "All lies and fake figures," he said, but in a doubtful croak.
For the Sunday after, the Chatham Road Presbyterian Church announced a sermon by Dr. John Jennison Drew on "How the Saviour Would End Strikes." Babbitt had been negligent about church-going lately, but he went to the service, hopeful that Dr. Drew really did have the information as to what the divine powers thought about strikes. Beside Babbitt in the large, curving, glossy, velvet-upholstered pew was Chum Frink.
Frink whispered, "Hope the doc gives the strikers hell! Ordinarily, I don't believe in a preacher butting into political matters—let him stick to straight religion and save souls, and not stir up a lot of discussion—but at a time like this, I do think he ought to stand right up and bawl out those plug-uglies to a fare-you-well!"
"Yes—well—" said Babbitt.
The Rev. Dr. Drew, his rustic bang flopping with the intensity of his poetic and sociologic ardor, trumpeted:
"During the untoward series of industrial dislocations which have—let us be courageous and admit it boldly—throttled the business life of our fair city these past days, there has been a great deal of loose talk about scientific prevention of scientific—SCIENTIFIC! Now, let me tell you that the most unscientific thing in the world is science! Take the attacks on the established fundamentals of the Christian creed which were so popular with the 'scientists' a generation ago. Oh, yes, they were mighty fellows, and great poo-bahs of criticism! They were going to destroy the church; they were going to prove the world was created and has been brought to its extraordinary level of morality and civilization by blind chance. Yet the church stands just as firmly to-day as ever, and the only answer a Christian pastor needs make to the long-haired opponents of his simple faith is just a pitying smile!
"And now these same 'scientists' want to replace the natural condition of free competition by crazy systems which, no matter by what high-sounding names they are called, are nothing but a despotic paternalism. Naturally, I'm not criticizing labor courts, injunctions against men proven to be striking unjustly, or those excellent unions in which the men and the boss get together. But I certainly am criticizing the systems in which the free and fluid motivation of independent labor is to be replaced by cooked-up wage-scales and minimum salaries and government commissions and labor federations and all that poppycock.
"What is not generally understood is that this whole industrial matter isn't a question of economics. It's essentially and only a matter of Love, and of the practical application of the Christian religion! Imagine a factory—instead of committees of workmen alienating the boss, the boss goes among them smiling, and they smile back, the elder brother and the younger. Brothers, that's what they must be, loving brothers, and then strikes would be as inconceivable as hatred in the home!"
It was at this point that Babbitt muttered, "Oh, rot!"
"Huh?" said Chum Frink.
"He doesn't know what he's talking about. It's just as clear as mud. It doesn't mean a darn thing."
Frink looked at him doubtfully, through all the service kept glancing at him doubtfully, till Babbitt was nervous.
The strikers had announced a parade for Tuesday morning, but Colonel Nixon had forbidden it, the newspapers said. When Babbitt drove west from his office at ten that morning he saw a drove of shabby men heading toward the tangled, dirty district beyond Court House Square. He hated them, because they were poor, because they made him feel insecure "Damn loafers! Wouldn't be common workmen if they had any pep," he complained. He wondered if there was going to be a riot. He drove toward the starting-point of the parade, a triangle of limp and faded grass known as Moore Street Park, and halted his car.
The park and streets were buzzing with strikers, young men in blue denim shirts, old men with caps. Through them, keeping them stirred like a boiling pot, moved the militiamen. Babbitt could hear the soldiers' monotonous orders: "Keep moving—move on, 'bo—keep your feet warm!" Babbitt admired their stolid good temper. The crowd shouted, "Tin soldiers," and "Dirty dogs—servants of the capitalists!" but the militiamen grinned and answered only, "Sure, that's right. Keep moving, Billy!"
Babbitt thrilled over the citizen-soldiers, hated the scoundrels who were obstructing the pleasant ways of prosperity, admired Colonel Nixon's striding contempt for the crowd; and as Captain Clarence Drum, that rather puffing shoe-dealer, came raging by, Babbitt respectfully clamored, "Great work, Captain! Don't let 'em march!" He watched the strikers filing from the park. Many of them bore posters with "They can't stop our peacefully walking." The militiamen tore away the posters, but the strikers fell in behind their leaders and straggled off, a thin unimpressive trickle between steel-glinting lines of soldiers. Babbitt saw with disappointment that there wasn't going to be any violence, nothing interesting at all. Then he gasped.
Among the marchers, beside a bulky young workman, was Seneca Doane, smiling, content. In front of him was Professor Brockbank, head of the history department in the State University, an old man and white-bearded, known to come from a distinguished Massachusetts family.
"Why, gosh," Babbitt marveled, "a swell like him in with the strikers? And good ole Senny Doane! They're fools to get mixed up with this bunch. They're parlor socialists! But they have got nerve. And nothing in it for them, not a cent! And—I don't know 's ALL the strikers look like such tough nuts. Look just about like anybody else to me!"
The militiamen were turning the parade down a side street.
"They got just as much right to march as anybody else! They own the streets as much as Clarence Drum or the American Legion does!" Babbitt grumbled. "Of course, they're—they're a bad element, but—Oh, rats!"
At the Athletic Club, Babbitt was silent during lunch, while the others fretted, "I don't know what the world's coming to," or solaced their spirits with "kidding."
Captain Clarence Drum came swinging by, splendid in khaki.
"How's it going, Captain?" inquired Vergil Gunch.
"Oh, we got 'em stopped. We worked 'em off on side streets and separated 'em and they got discouraged and went home."
"Fine work. No violence."
"Fine work nothing!" groaned Mr. Drum. "If I had my way, there'd be a whole lot of violence, and I'd start it, and then the whole thing would be over. I don't believe in standing back and wet-nursing these fellows and letting the disturbances drag on. I tell you these strikers are nothing in God's world but a lot of bomb-throwing socialists and thugs, and the only way to handle 'em is with a club! That's what I'd do; beat up the whole lot of 'em!"
Babbitt heard himself saying, "Oh, rats, Clarence, they look just about like you and me, and I certainly didn't notice any bombs."
Drum complained, "Oh, you didn't, eh? Well, maybe you'd like to take charge of the strike! Just tell Colonel Nixon what innocents the strikers are! He'd be glad to hear about it!" Drum strode on, while all the table stared at Babbitt.
"What's the idea? Do you want us to give those hell-hounds love and kisses, or what?" said Orville Jones.
"Do you defend a lot of hoodlums that are trying to take the bread and butter away from our families?" raged Professor Pumphrey.
Vergil Gunch intimidatingly said nothing. He put on sternness like a mask; his jaw was hard, his bristly short hair seemed cruel, his silence was a ferocious thunder. While the others assured Babbitt that they must have misunderstood him, Gunch looked as though he had understood only too well. Like a robed judge he listened to Babbitt's stammering:
"No, sure; course they're a bunch of toughs. But I just mean—Strikes me it's bad policy to talk about clubbing 'em. Cabe Nixon doesn't. He's got the fine Italian hand. And that's why he's colonel. Clarence Drum is jealous of him."
"Well," said Professor Pumphrey, "you hurt Clarence's feelings, George. He's been out there all morning getting hot and dusty, and no wonder he wants to beat the tar out of those sons of guns!"
Gunch said nothing, and watched; and Babbitt knew that he was being watched.
As he was leaving the club Babbitt heard Chum Frink protesting to Gunch, "—don't know what's got into him. Last Sunday Doc Drew preached a corking sermon about decency in business and Babbitt kicked about that, too. Near 's I can figure out—"
Babbitt was vaguely frightened.
He saw a crowd listening to a man who was talking from the rostrum of a kitchen-chair. He stopped his car. From newspaper pictures he knew that the speaker must be the notorious freelance preacher, Beecher Ingram, of whom Seneca Doane had spoken. Ingram was a gaunt man with flamboyant hair, weather-beaten cheeks, and worried eyes. He was pleading:
"—if those telephone girls can hold out, living on one meal a day, doing their own washing, starving and smiling, you big hulking men ought to be able—"
Babbitt saw that from the sidewalk Vergil Gunch was watching him. In vague disquiet he started the car and mechanically drove on, while Gunch's hostile eyes seemed to follow him all the way.
"There's a lot of these fellows," Babbitt was complaining to his wife, "that think if workmen go on strike they're a regular bunch of fiends. Now, of course, it's a fight between sound business and the destructive element, and we got to lick the stuffin's out of 'em when they challenge us, but doggoned if I see why we can't fight like gentlemen and not go calling 'em dirty dogs and saying they ought to be shot down."
"Why, George," she said placidly, "I thought you always insisted that all strikers ought to be put in jail."
"I never did! Well, I mean—Some of 'em, of course. Irresponsible leaders. But I mean a fellow ought to be broad-minded and liberal about things like—"
"But dearie, I thought you always said these so-called 'liberal' people were the worst of—"
"Rats! Woman never can understand the different definitions of a word. Depends on how you mean it. And it don't pay to be too cocksure about anything. Now, these strikers: Honest, they're not such bad people. Just foolish. They don't understand the complications of merchandizing and profit, the way we business men do, but sometimes I think they're about like the rest of us, and no more hogs for wages than we are for profits."