"George! If people were to hear you talk like that—of course I KNOW you; I remember what a wild crazy boy you were; I know you don't mean a word you say—but if people that didn't understand you were to hear you talking, they'd think you were a regular socialist!"
"What do I care what anybody thinks? And let me tell you right now—I want you to distinctly understand I never was a wild crazy kid, and when I say a thing, I mean it, and I stand by it and—Honest, do you think people would think I was too liberal if I just said the strikers were decent?"
"Of course they would. But don't worry, dear; I know you don't mean a word of it. Time to trot up to bed now. Have you enough covers for to-night?"
On the sleeping-porch he puzzled, "She doesn't understand me. Hardly understand myself. Why can't I take things easy, way I used to?
"Wish I could go out to Senny Doane's house and talk things over with him. No! Suppose Verg Gunch saw me going in there!
"Wish I knew some really smart woman, and nice, that would see what I'm trying to get at, and let me talk to her and—I wonder if Myra's right? Could the fellows think I've gone nutty just because I'm broad-minded and liberal? Way Verg looked at me—"
MISS McGOUN came into his private office at three in the afternoon with "Lissen, Mr. Babbitt; there's a Mrs. Judique on the 'phone—wants to see about some repairs, and the salesmen are all out. Want to talk to her?"
The voice of Tanis Judique was clear and pleasant. The black cylinder of the telephone-receiver seemed to hold a tiny animated image of her: lustrous eyes, delicate nose, gentle chin.
"This is Mrs. Judique. Do you remember me? You drove me up here to the Cavendish Apartments and helped me find such a nice flat."
"Sure! Bet I remember! What can I do for you?"
"Why, it's just a little—I don't know that I ought to bother you, but the janitor doesn't seem to be able to fix it. You know my flat is on the top floor, and with these autumn rains the roof is beginning to leak, and I'd be awfully glad if—"
"Sure! I'll come up and take a look at it." Nervously, "When do you expect to be in?"
"Why, I'm in every morning."
"Be in this afternoon, in an hour or so?"
"Ye-es. Perhaps I could give you a cup of tea. I think I ought to, after all your trouble."
"Fine! I'll run up there soon as I can get away."
He meditated, "Now there's a woman that's got refinement, savvy, CLASS! 'After all your trouble—give you a cup of tea.' She'd appreciate a fellow. I'm a fool, but I'm not such a bad cuss, get to know me. And not so much a fool as they think!"
The great strike was over, the strikers beaten. Except that Vergil Gunch seemed less cordial, there were no visible effects of Babbitt's treachery to the clan. The oppressive fear of criticism was gone, but a diffident loneliness remained. Now he was so exhilarated that, to prove he wasn't, he droned about the office for fifteen minutes, looking at blue-prints, explaining to Miss McGoun that this Mrs. Scott wanted more money for her house—had raised the asking-price—raised it from seven thousand to eighty-five hundred—would Miss McGoun be sure and put it down on the card—Mrs. Scott's house—raise. When he had thus established himself as a person unemotional and interested only in business, he sauntered out. He took a particularly long time to start his car; he kicked the tires, dusted the glass of the speedometer, and tightened the screws holding the wind-shield spot-light.
He drove happily off toward the Bellevue district, conscious of the presence of Mrs. Judique as of a brilliant light on the horizon. The maple leaves had fallen and they lined the gutters of the asphalted streets. It was a day of pale gold and faded green, tranquil and lingering. Babbitt was aware of the meditative day, and of the barrenness of Bellevue—blocks of wooden houses, garages, little shops, weedy lots. "Needs pepping up; needs the touch that people like Mrs. Judique could give a place," he ruminated, as he rattled through the long, crude, airy streets. The wind rose, enlivening, keen, and in a blaze of well-being he came to the flat of Tanis Judique.
She was wearing, when she flutteringly admitted him, a frock of black chiffon cut modestly round at the base of her pretty throat. She seemed to him immensely sophisticated. He glanced at the cretonnes and colored prints in her living-room, and gurgled, "Gosh, you've fixed the place nice! Takes a clever woman to know how to make a home, all right!"
"You really like it? I'm so glad! But you've neglected me, scandalously. You promised to come some time and learn to dance."
Rather unsteadily, "Oh, but you didn't mean it seriously!"
"Perhaps not. But you might have tried!"
"Well, here I've come for my lesson, and you might just as well prepare to have me stay for supper!"
They both laughed in a manner which indicated that of course he didn't mean it.
"But first I guess I better look at that leak."
She climbed with him to the flat roof of the apartment-house a detached world of slatted wooden walks, clotheslines, water-tank in a penthouse. He poked at things with his toe, and sought to impress her by being learned about copper gutters, the desirability of passing plumbing pipes through a lead collar and sleeve and flashing them with copper, and the advantages of cedar over boiler-iron for roof-tanks.
"You have to know so much, in real estate!" she admired.
He promised that the roof should be repaired within two days. "Do you mind my 'phoning from your apartment?" he asked.
He stood a moment at the coping, looking over a land of hard little bungalows with abnormally large porches, and new apartment-houses, small, but brave with variegated brick walls and terra-cotta trimmings. Beyond them was a hill with a gouge of yellow clay like a vast wound. Behind every apartment-house, beside each dwelling, were small garages. It was a world of good little people, comfortable, industrious, credulous.
In the autumnal light the flat newness was mellowed, and the air was a sun-tinted pool.
"Golly, it's one fine afternoon. You get a great view here, right up Tanner's Hill," said Babbitt.
"Yes, isn't it nice and open."
"So darn few people appreciate a View."
"Don't you go raising my rent on that account! Oh, that was naughty of me! I was just teasing. Seriously though, there are so few who respond—who react to Views. I mean—they haven't any feeling of poetry and beauty."
"That's a fact, they haven't," he breathed, admiring her slenderness and the absorbed, airy way in which she looked toward the hill, chin lifted, lips smiling. "Well, guess I'd better telephone the plumbers, so they'll get on the job first thing in the morning."
When he had telephoned, making it conspicuously authoritative and gruff and masculine, he looked doubtful, and sighed, "S'pose I'd better be—"
"Oh, you must have that cup of tea first!"
"Well, it would go pretty good, at that."
It was luxurious to loll in a deep green rep chair, his legs thrust out before him, to glance at the black Chinese telephone stand and the colored photograph of Mount Vernon which he had always liked so much, while in the tiny kitchen—so near—Mrs. Judique sang "My Creole Queen." In an intolerable sweetness, a contentment so deep that he was wistfully discontented, he saw magnolias by moonlight and heard plantation darkies crooning to the banjo. He wanted to be near her, on pretense of helping her, yet he wanted to remain in this still ecstasy. Languidly he remained.
When she bustled in with the tea he smiled up at her. "This is awfully nice!" For the first time, he was not fencing; he was quietly and securely friendly; and friendly and quiet was her answer: "It's nice to have you here. You were so kind, helping me to find this little home."
They agreed that the weather would soon turn cold. They agreed that prohibition was prohibitive. They agreed that art in the home was cultural. They agreed about everything. They even became bold. They hinted that these modern young girls, well, honestly, their short skirts were short. They were proud to find that they were not shocked by such frank speaking. Tanis ventured, "I know you'll understand—I mean—I don't quite know how to say it, but I do think that girls who pretend they're bad by the way they dress really never go any farther. They give away the fact that they haven't the instincts of a womanly woman."
Remembering Ida Putiak, the manicure girl, and how ill she had used him, Babbitt agreed with enthusiasm; remembering how ill all the world had used him, he told of Paul Riesling, of Zilla, of Seneca Doane, of the strike:
"See how it was? Course I was as anxious to have those beggars licked to a standstill as anybody else, but gosh, no reason for not seeing their side. For a fellow's own sake, he's got to be broad-minded and liberal, don't you think so?"
"Oh, I do!" Sitting on the hard little couch, she clasped her hands beside her, leaned toward him, absorbed him; and in a glorious state of being appreciated he proclaimed:
"So I up and said to the fellows at the club, 'Look here,' I—"
"Do you belong to the Union Club? I think it's—"
"No; the Athletic. Tell you: Course they're always asking me to join the Union, but I always say, 'No, sir! Nothing doing!' I don't mind the expense but I can't stand all the old fogies."
"Oh, yes, that's so. But tell me: what did you say to them?"
"Oh, you don't want to hear it. I'm probably boring you to death with my troubles! You wouldn't hardly think I was an old duffer; I sound like a kid!"
"Oh, you're a boy yet. I mean—you can't be a day over forty-five."
"Well, I'm not—much. But by golly I begin to feel middle-aged sometimes; all these responsibilities and all."
"Oh, I know!" Her voice caressed him; it cloaked him like warm silk. "And I feel lonely, so lonely, some days, Mr. Babbitt."
"We're a sad pair of birds! But I think we're pretty darn nice!"
"Yes, I think we're lots nicer than most people I know!" They smiled. "But please tell me what you said at the Club."
"Well, it was like this: Course Seneca Doane is a friend of mine—they can say what they want to, they can call him anything they please, but what most folks here don't know is that Senny is the bosom pal of some of the biggest statesmen in the world—Lord Wycombe, frinstance—you know, this big British nobleman. My friend Sir Gerald Doak told me that Lord Wycombe is one of the biggest guns in England—well, Doak or somebody told me."
"Oh! Do you know Sir Gerald? The one that was here, at the McKelveys'?"
"Know him? Well, say, I know him just well enough so we call each other George and Jerry, and we got so pickled together in Chicago—"
"That must have been fun. But—" She shook a finger at him. "—I can't have you getting pickled! I'll have to take you in hand!"
"Wish you would! . . . Well, zize saying: You see I happen to know what a big noise Senny Doane is outside of Zenith, but of course a prophet hasn't got any honor in his own country, and Senny, darn his old hide, he's so blame modest that he never lets folks know the kind of an outfit he travels with when he goes abroad. Well, during the strike Clarence Drum comes pee-rading up to our table, all dolled up fit to kill in his nice lil cap'n's uniform, and somebody says to him, 'Busting the strike, Clarence?'
"Well, he swells up like a pouter-pigeon and he hollers, so 's you could hear him way up in the reading-room, 'Yes, sure; I told the strike-leaders where they got off, and so they went home.'
"'Well,' I says to him, 'glad there wasn't any violence.'
"'Yes,' he says, 'but if I hadn't kept my eye skinned there would 've been. All those fellows had bombs in their pockets. They're reg'lar anarchists.'
"'Oh, rats, Clarence,' I says, 'I looked 'em all over carefully, and they didn't have any more bombs 'n a rabbit,' I says. 'Course,' I says, 'they're foolish, but they're a good deal like you and me, after all.'
"And then Vergil Gunch or somebody—no, it was Chum Frink—you know, this famous poet—great pal of mine—he says to me, 'Look here,' he says, 'do you mean to say you advocate these strikes?' Well, I was so disgusted with a fellow whose mind worked that way that I swear, I had a good mind to not explain at all—just ignore him—"
"Oh, that's so wise!" said Mrs. Judique.
"—but finally I explains to him: 'If you'd done as much as I have on Chamber of Commerce committees and all,' I says, 'then you'd have the right to talk! But same time,' I says, 'I believe in treating your opponent like a gentleman!' Well, sir, that held 'em! Frink—Chum I always call him—he didn't have another word to say. But at that, I guess some of 'em kind o' thought I was too liberal. What do you think?"
"Oh, you were so wise. And courageous! I love a man to have the courage of his convictions!"
"But do you think it was a good stunt? After all, some of these fellows are so darn cautious and narrow-minded that they're prejudiced against a fellow that talks right out in meeting."
"What do you care? In the long run they're bound to respect a man who makes them think, and with your reputation for oratory you—"
"What do you know about my reputation for oratory?"
"Oh, I'm not going to tell you everything I know! But seriously, you don't realize what a famous man you are."
"Well—Though I haven't done much orating this fall. Too kind of bothered by this Paul Riesling business, I guess. But—Do you know, you're the first person that's really understood what I was getting at, Tanis—Listen to me, will you! Fat nerve I've got, calling you Tanis!"
"Oh, do! And shall I call you George? Don't you think it's awfully nice when two people have so much—what shall I call it?—so much analysis that they can discard all these stupid conventions and understand each other and become acquainted right away, like ships that pass in the night?"
"I certainly do! I certainly do!"
He was no longer quiescent in his chair; he wandered about the room, he dropped on the couch beside her. But as he awkwardly stretched his hand toward her fragile, immaculate fingers, she said brightly, "Do give me a cigarette. Would you think poor Tanis was dreadfully naughty if she smoked?"
"Lord, no! I like it!"
He had often and weightily pondered flappers smoking in Zenith restaurants, but he knew only one woman who smoked—Mrs. Sam Doppelbrau, his flighty neighbor. He ceremoniously lighted Tanis's cigarette, looked for a place to deposit the burnt match, and dropped it into his pocket.
"I'm sure you want a cigar, you poor man!" she crooned.
"Do you mind one?"
"Oh, no! I love the smell of a good cigar; so nice and—so nice and like a man. You'll find an ash-tray in my bedroom, on the table beside the bed, if you don't mind getting it."
He was embarrassed by her bedroom: the broad couch with a cover of violet silk, mauve curtains striped with gold. Chinese Chippendale bureau, and an amazing row of slippers, with ribbon-wound shoe-trees, and primrose stockings lying across them. His manner of bringing the ash-tray had just the right note of easy friendliness, he felt. "A boob like Verg Gunch would try to get funny about seeing her bedroom, but I take it casually." He was not casual afterward. The contentment of companionship was gone, and he was restless with desire to touch her hand. But whenever he turned toward her, the cigarette was in his way. It was a shield between them. He waited till she should have finished, but as he rejoiced at her quick crushing of its light on the ashtray she said, "Don't you want to give me another cigarette?" and hopelessly he saw the screen of pale smoke and her graceful tilted hand again between them. He was not merely curious now to find out whether she would let him hold her hand (all in the purest friendship, naturally), but agonized with need of it.
On the surface appeared none of all this fretful drama. They were talking cheerfully of motors, of trips to California, of Chum Frink. Once he said delicately, "I do hate these guys—I hate these people that invite themselves to meals, but I seem to have a feeling I'm going to have supper with the lovely Mrs. Tanis Judique to-night. But I suppose you probably have seven dates already."
"Well, I was thinking some of going to the movies. Yes, I really think I ought to get out and get some fresh air."
She did not encourage him to stay, but never did she discourage him. He considered, "I better take a sneak! She WILL let me stay—there IS something doing—and I mustn't get mixed up with—I mustn't—I've got to beat it." Then, "No. it's too late now."
Suddenly, at seven, brushing her cigarette away, brusquely taking her hand:
"Tanis! Stop teasing me! You know we—Here we are, a couple of lonely birds, and we're awful happy together. Anyway I am! Never been so happy! Do let me stay! Ill gallop down to the delicatessen and buy some stuff—cold chicken maybe—or cold turkey—and we can have a nice little supper, and afterwards, if you want to chase me out, I'll be good and go like a lamb."
"Well—yes—it would be nice," she said.
Nor did she withdraw her hand. He squeezed it, trembling, and blundered toward his coat. At the delicatessen he bought preposterous stores of food, chosen on the principle of expensiveness. From the drug store across the street he telephoned to his wife, "Got to get a fellow to sign a lease before he leaves town on the midnight. Won't be home till late. Don't wait up for me. Kiss Tinka good-night." He expectantly lumbered back to the flat.
"Oh, you bad thing, to buy so much food!" was her greeting, and her voice was gay, her smile acceptant.
He helped her in the tiny white kitchen; he washed the lettuce, he opened the olive bottle. She ordered him to set the table, and as he trotted into the living-room, as he hunted through the buffet for knives and forks, he felt utterly at home.
"Now the only other thing," he announced, "is what you're going to wear. I can't decide whether you're to put on your swellest evening gown, or let your hair down and put on short skirts and make-believe you're a little girl."
"I'm going to dine just as I am, in this old chiffon rag, and if you can't stand poor Tanis that way, you can go to the club for dinner!"
"Stand you!" He patted her shoulder. "Child, you're the brainiest and the loveliest and finest woman I've ever met! Come now, Lady Wycombe, if you'll take the Duke of Zenith's arm, we will proambulate in to the magnolious feed!"
"Oh, you do say the funniest, nicest things!"
When they had finished the picnic supper he thrust his head out of the window and reported, "It's turned awful chilly, and I think it's going to rain. You don't want to go to the movies."
"I wish we had a fireplace! I wish it was raining like all get-out to-night, and we were in a funny little old-fashioned cottage, and the trees thrashing like everything outside, and a great big log fire and—I'll tell you! Let's draw this couch up to the radiator, and stretch our feet out, and pretend it's a wood-fire."
"Oh, I think that's pathetic! You big child!"
But they did draw up to the radiator, and propped their feet against it—his clumsy black shoes, her patent-leather slippers. In the dimness they talked of themselves; of how lonely she was, how bewildered he, and how wonderful that they had found each other. As they fell silent the room was stiller than a country lane. There was no sound from the street save the whir of motor-tires, the rumble of a distant freight-train. Self-contained was the room, warm, secure, insulated from the harassing world.
He was absorbed by a rapture in which all fear and doubting were smoothed away; and when he reached home, at dawn, the rapture had mellowed to contentment serene and full of memories.
THE assurance of Tanis Judique's friendship fortified Babbitt's self-approval. At the Athletic Club he became experimental. Though Vergil Gunch was silent, the others at the Roughnecks' Table came to accept Babbitt as having, for no visible reason, "turned crank." They argued windily with him, and he was cocky, and enjoyed the spectacle of his interesting martyrdom. He even praised Seneca Doane. Professor Pumphrey said that was carrying a joke too far; but Babbitt argued, "No! Fact! I tell you he's got one of the keenest intellects in the country. Why, Lord Wycombe said that—"
"Oh, who the hell is Lord Wycombe? What you always lugging him in for? You been touting him for the last six weeks!" protested Orville Jones.
"George ordered him from Sears-Roebuck. You can get those English high-muckamucks by mail for two bucks apiece," suggested Sidney Finkelstein.
"That's all right now! Lord Wycombe, he's one of the biggest intellects in English political life. As I was saying: Of course I'm conservative myself, but I appreciate a guy like Senny Doane because—"
Vergil Gunch interrupted harshly, "I wonder if you are so conservative? I find I can manage to run my own business without any skunks and reds like Doane in it!"
The grimness of Gunch's voice, the hardness of his jaw, disconcerted Babbitt, but he recovered and went on till they looked bored, then irritated, then as doubtful as Gunch.
He thought of Tanis always. With a stir he remembered her every aspect. His arms yearned for her. "I've found her! I've dreamed of her all these years and now I've found her!" he exulted. He met her at the movies in the morning; he drove out to her flat in the late afternoon or on evenings when he was believed to be at the Elks. He knew her financial affairs and advised her about them, while she lamented her feminine ignorance, and praised his masterfulness, and proved to know much more about bonds than he did. They had remembrances, and laughter over old times. Once they quarreled, and he raged that she was as "bossy" as his wife and far more whining when he was inattentive. But that passed safely.
Their high hour was a tramp on a ringing December afternoon, through snow-drifted meadows down to the icy Chaloosa River. She was exotic in an astrachan cap and a short beaver coat; she slid on the ice and shouted, and he panted after her, rotund with laughter.... Myra Babbitt never slid on the ice.
He was afraid that they would be seen together. In Zenith it is impossible to lunch with a neighbor's wife without the fact being known, before nightfall, in every house in your circle. But Tanis was beautifully discreet. However appealingly she might turn to him when they were alone, she was gravely detached when they were abroad, and he hoped that she would be taken for a client. Orville Jones once saw them emerging from a movie theater, and Babbitt bumbled, "Let me make you 'quainted with Mrs. Judique. Now here's a lady who knows the right broker to come to, Orvy!" Mr. Jones, though he was a man censorious of morals and of laundry machinery, seemed satisfied.
His predominant fear—not from any especial fondness for her but from the habit of propriety—was that his wife would learn of the affair. He was certain that she knew nothing specific about Tanis, but he was also certain that she suspected something indefinite. For years she had been bored by anything more affectionate than a farewell kiss, yet she was hurt by any slackening in his irritable periodic interest, and now he had no interest; rather, a revulsion. He was completely faithful—to Tanis. He was distressed by the sight of his wife's slack plumpness, by her puffs and billows of flesh, by the tattered petticoat which she was always meaning and always forgetting to throw away. But he was aware that she, so long attuned to him, caught all his repulsions. He elaborately, heavily, jocularly tried to check them. He couldn't.
They had a tolerable Christmas. Kenneth Escott was there, admittedly engaged to Verona. Mrs. Babbitt was tearful and called Kenneth her new son. Babbitt was worried about Ted, because he had ceased complaining of the State University and become suspiciously acquiescent. He wondered what the boy was planning, and was too shy to ask. Himself, Babbitt slipped away on Christmas afternoon to take his present, a silver cigarette-box, to Tanis. When he returned Mrs. Babbitt asked, much too innocently, "Did you go out for a little fresh air?"
"Yes, just lil drive," he mumbled.
After New Year's his wife proposed, "I heard from my sister to-day, George. She isn't well. I think perhaps I ought to go stay with her for a few weeks."
Now, Mrs. Babbitt was not accustomed to leave home during the winter except on violently demanding occasions, and only the summer before, she had been gone for weeks. Nor was Babbitt one of the detachable husbands who take separations casually He liked to have her there; she looked after his clothes; she knew how his steak ought to be cooked; and her clucking made him feel secure. But he could not drum up even a dutiful "Oh, she doesn't really need you, does she?" While he tried to look regretful, while he felt that his wife was watching him, he was filled with exultant visions of Tanis.
"Do you think I'd better go?" she said sharply.
"You've got to decide, honey; I can't."
She turned away, sighing, and his forehead was damp.
Till she went, four days later, she was curiously still, he cumbrously affectionate. Her train left at noon. As he saw it grow small beyond the train-shed he longed to hurry to Tanis.
"No, by golly, I won't do that!" he vowed. "I won't go near her for a week!"
But he was at her flat at four.
He who had once controlled or seemed to control his life in a progress unimpassioned but diligent and sane was for that fortnight borne on a current of desire and very bad whisky and all the complications of new acquaintances, those furious new intimates who demand so much more attention than old friends. Each morning he gloomily recognized his idiocies of the evening before. With his head throbbing, his tongue and lips stinging from cigarettes, he incredulously counted the number of drinks he had taken, and groaned, "I got to quit!" He had ceased saying, "I WILL quit!" for however resolute he might be at dawn, he could not, for a single evening, check his drift.
He had met Tanis's friends; he had, with the ardent haste of the Midnight People, who drink and dance and rattle and are ever afraid to be silent, been adopted as a member of her group, which they called "The Bunch." He first met them after a day when he had worked particularly hard and when he hoped to be quiet with Tanis and slowly sip her admiration.
From down the hall he could hear shrieks and the grind of a phonograph. As Tanis opened the door he saw fantastic figures dancing in a haze of cigarette smoke. The tables and chairs were against the wall.
"Oh, isn't this dandy!" she gabbled at him. "Carrie Nork had the loveliest idea. She decided it was time for a party, and she 'phoned the Bunch and told 'em to gather round. . . . George, this is Carrie."
"Carrie" was, in the less desirable aspects of both, at once matronly and spinsterish. She was perhaps forty; her hair was an unconvincing ash-blond; and if her chest was flat, her hips were ponderous. She greeted Babbitt with a giggling "Welcome to our little midst! Tanis says you're a real sport."
He was apparently expected to dance, to be boyish and gay with Carrie, and he did his unforgiving best. He towed her about the room, bumping into other couples, into the radiator, into chair-legs cunningly ambushed. As he danced he surveyed the rest of the Bunch: A thin young woman who looked capable, conceited, and sarcastic. Another woman whom he could never quite remember. Three overdressed and slightly effeminate young men—soda-fountain clerks, or at least born for that profession. A man of his own age, immovable, self-satisfied, resentful of Babbitt's presence.
When he had finished his dutiful dance Tanis took him aside and begged, "Dear, wouldn't you like to do something for me? I'm all out of booze, and the Bunch want to celebrate. Couldn't you just skip down to Healey Hanson's and get some?"
"Sure," he said, trying not to sound sullen.
"I'll tell you: I'll get Minnie Sonntag to drive down with you." Tanis was pointing to the thin, sarcastic young woman.
Miss Sonntag greeted him with an astringent "How d'you do, Mr. Babbitt. Tanis tells me you're a very prominent man, and I'm honored by being allowed to drive with you. Of course I'm not accustomed to associating with society people like you, so I don't know how to act in such exalted circles!"
Thus Miss Sonntag talked all the way down to Healey Hanson's. To her jibes he wanted to reply "Oh, go to the devil!" but he never quite nerved himself to that reasonable comment. He was resenting the existence of the whole Bunch. He had heard Tanis speak of "darling Carrie" and "Min Sonntag—she's so clever—you'll adore her," but they had never been real to him. He had pictured Tanis as living in a rose-tinted vacuum, waiting for him, free of all the complications of a Floral Heights.
When they returned he had to endure the patronage of the young soda-clerks. They were as damply friendly as Miss Sonntag was dryly hostile. They called him "Old Georgie" and shouted, "Come on now, sport; shake a leg" . . . boys in belted coats, pimply boys, as young as Ted and as flabby as chorus-men, but powerful to dance and to mind the phonograph and smoke cigarettes and patronize Tanis. He tried to be one of them; he cried "Good work, Pete!" but his voice creaked.
Tanis apparently enjoyed the companionship of the dancing darlings; she bridled to their bland flirtation and casually kissed them at the end of each dance. Babbitt hated her, for the moment. He saw her as middle-aged. He studied the wrinkles in the softness of her throat, the slack flesh beneath her chin. The taut muscles of her youth were loose and drooping. Between dances she sat in the largest chair, waving her cigarette, summoning her callow admirers to come and talk to her. ("She thinks she's a blooming queen!" growled Babbitt.) She chanted to Miss Sonntag, "Isn't my little studio sweet?" ("Studio, rats! It's a plain old-maid-and-chow-dog flat! Oh, God, I wish I was home! I wonder if I can't make a getaway now?")
His vision grew blurred, however, as he applied himself to Healey Hanson's raw but vigorous whisky. He blended with the Bunch. He began to rejoice that Carrie Nork and Pete, the most nearly intelligent of the nimble youths, seemed to like him; and it was enormously important to win over the surly older man, who proved to be a railway clerk named Fulton Bemis.
The conversation of the Bunch was exclamatory, high-colored, full of references to people whom Babbitt did not know. Apparently they thought very comfortably of themselves. They were the Bunch, wise and beautiful and amusing; they were Bohemians and urbanites, accustomed to all the luxuries of Zenith: dance-halls, movie-theaters, and roadhouses; and in a cynical superiority to people who were "slow" or "tightwad" they cackled:
"Oh, Pete, did I tell you what that dub of a cashier said when I came in late yesterday? Oh, it was per-fect-ly priceless!"
"Oh, but wasn't T. D. stewed! Say, he was simply ossified! What did Gladys say to him?"
"Think of the nerve of Bob Bickerstaff trying to get us to come to his house! Say, the nerve of him! Can you beat it for nerve? Some nerve I call it!"
"Did you notice how Dotty was dancing? Gee, wasn't she the limit!"
Babbitt was to be heard sonorously agreeing with the once-hated Miss Minnie Sonntag that persons who let a night go by without dancing to jazz music were crabs, pikers, and poor fish; and he roared "You bet!" when Mrs. Carrie Nork gurgled, "Don't you love to sit on the floor? It's so Bohemian!" He began to think extremely well of the Bunch. When he mentioned his friends Sir Gerald Doak, Lord Wycombe, William Washington Eathorne, and Chum Frink, he was proud of their condescending interest. He got so thoroughly into the jocund spirit that he didn't much mind seeing Tanis drooping against the shoulder of the youngest and milkiest of the young men, and he himself desired to hold Carrie Nork's pulpy hand, and dropped it only because Tanis looked angry.
When he went home, at two, he was fully a member of the Bunch, and all the week thereafter he was bound by the exceedingly straitened conventions, the exceedingly wearing demands, of their life of pleasure and freedom. He had to go to their parties; he was involved in the agitation when everybody telephoned to everybody else that she hadn't meant what she'd said when she'd said that, and anyway, why was Pete going around saying she'd said it?
Never was a Family more insistent on learning one another's movements than were the Bunch. All of them volubly knew, or indignantly desired to know, where all the others had been every minute of the week. Babbitt found himself explaining to Carrie or Fulton Bemis just what he had been doing that he should not have joined them till ten o'clock, and apologizing for having gone to dinner with a business acquaintance.
Every member of the Bunch was expected to telephone to every other member at least once a week. "Why haven't you called me up?" Babbitt was asked accusingly, not only by Tanis and Carrie but presently by new ancient friends, Jennie and Capitolina and Toots.
If for a moment he had seen Tanis as withering and sentimental, he lost that impression at Carrie Nork's dance. Mrs. Nork had a large house and a small husband. To her party came all of the Bunch, perhaps thirty-five of them when they were completely mobilized. Babbitt, under the name of "Old Georgie," was now a pioneer of the Bunch, since each month it changed half its membership and he who could recall the prehistoric days of a fortnight ago, before Mrs. Absolom, the food-demonstrator, had gone to Indianapolis, and Mac had "got sore at" Minnie, was a venerable leader and able to condescend to new Petes and Minnies and Gladyses.
At Carrie's, Tanis did not have to work at being hostess. She was dignified and sure, a clear fine figure in the black chiffon frock he had always loved; and in the wider spaces of that ugly house Babbitt was able to sit quietly with her. He repented of his first revulsion, mooned at her feet, and happily drove her home. Next day he bought a violent yellow tie, to make himself young for her. He knew, a little sadly, that he could not make himself beautiful; he beheld himself as heavy, hinting of fatness, but he danced, he dressed, he chattered, to be as young as she was . . . as young as she seemed to be.
As all converts, whether to a religion, love, or gardening, find as by magic that though hitherto these hobbies have not seemed to exist, now the whole world is filled with their fury, so, once he was converted to dissipation, Babbitt discovered agreeable opportunities for it everywhere.
He had a new view of his sporting neighbor, Sam Doppelbrau. The Doppelbraus were respectable people, industrious people, prosperous people, whose ideal of happiness was an eternal cabaret. Their life was dominated by suburban bacchanalia of alcohol, nicotine, gasoline, and kisses. They and their set worked capably all the week, and all week looked forward to Saturday night, when they would, as they expressed it, "throw a party;" and the thrown party grew noisier and noisier up to Sunday dawn, and usually included an extremely rapid motor expedition to nowhere in particular.
One evening when Tanis was at the theater, Babbitt found himself being lively with the Doppelbraus, pledging friendship with men whom he had for years privily denounced to Mrs. Babbitt as a "rotten bunch of tin-horns that I wouldn't go out with, rot if they were the last people on earth." That evening he had sulkily come home and poked about in front of the house, chipping off the walk the ice-clots, like fossil footprints, made by the steps of passers-by during the recent snow. Howard Littlefield came up snuffling.
"Still a widower, George?"
"Yump. Cold again to-night."
"What do you hear from the wife?"
"She's feeling fine, but her sister is still pretty sick."
"Say, better come in and have dinner with us to-night, George."
"Oh—oh, thanks. Have to go out."
Suddenly he could not endure Littlefield's recitals of the more interesting statistics about totally uninteresting problems. He scraped at the walk and grunted.
Sam Doppelbrau appeared.
"Evenin', Babbitt. Working hard?"
"Yuh, lil exercise."
"Cold enough for you to-night?"
"Well, just about."
"Still a widower?"
"Say, Babbitt, while she's away—I know you don't care much for booze-fights, but the Missus and I'd be awfully glad if you could come in some night. Think you could stand a good cocktail for once?"
"Stand it? Young fella, I bet old Uncle George can mix the best cocktail in these United States!"
"Hurray! That's the way to talk! Look here: There's some folks coming to the house to-night, Louetta Swanson and some other live ones, and I'm going to open up a bottle of pre-war gin, and maybe we'll dance a while. Why don't you drop in and jazz it up a little, just for a change?"
"Well—What time they coming?"
He was at Sam Doppelbrau's at nine. It was the third time he had entered the house. By ten he was calling Mr. Doppelbrau "Sam, old hoss."
At eleven they all drove out to the Old Farm Inn. Babbitt sat in the back of Doppelbrau's car with Louetta Swanson. Once he had timorously tried to make love to her. Now he did not try; he merely made love; and Louetta dropped her head on his shoulder, told him what a nagger Eddie was, and accepted Babbitt as a decent and well-trained libertine.
With the assistance of Tanis's Bunch, the Doppelbraus, and other companions in forgetfulness, there was not an evening for two weeks when he did not return home late and shaky. With his other faculties blurred he yet had the motorist's gift of being able to drive when he could scarce walk; of slowing down at corners and allowing for approaching cars. He came wambling into the house. If Verona and Kenneth Escott were about, he got past them with a hasty greeting, horribly aware of their level young glances, and hid himself up-stairs. He found when he came into the warm house that he was hazier than he had believed. His head whirled. He dared not lie down. He tried to soak out the alcohol in a hot bath. For the moment his head was clearer but when he moved about the bathroom his calculations of distance were wrong, so that he dragged down the towels, and knocked over the soap-dish with a clatter which, he feared, would betray him to the children. Chilly in his dressing-gown he tried to read the evening paper. He could follow every word; he seemed to take in the sense of things; but a minute afterward he could not have told what he had been reading. When he went to bed his brain flew in circles, and he hastily sat up, struggling for self-control. At last he was able to lie still, feeling only a little sick and dizzy—and enormously ashamed. To hide his "condition" from his own children! To have danced and shouted with people whom he despised! To have said foolish things, sung idiotic songs, tried to kiss silly girls! Incredulously he remembered that he had by his roaring familiarity with them laid himself open to the patronizing of youths whom he would have kicked out of his office; that by dancing too ardently he had exposed himself to rebukes from the rattiest of withering women. As it came relentlessly back to him he snarled, "I hate myself! God how I hate myself!" But, he raged, "I'm through! No more! Had enough, plenty!"
He was even surer about it the morning after, when he was trying to be grave and paternal with his daughters at breakfast. At noontime he was less sure. He did not deny that he had been a fool; he saw it almost as clearly as at midnight; but anything, he struggled, was better than going back to a life of barren heartiness. At four he wanted a drink. He kept a whisky flask in his desk now, and after two minutes of battle he had his drink. Three drinks later he began to see the Bunch as tender and amusing friends, and by six he was with them . . . and the tale was to be told all over.
Each morning his head ached a little less. A bad head for drinks had been his safeguard, but the safeguard was crumbling. Presently he could be drunk at dawn, yet not feel particularly wretched in his conscience—or in his stomach—when he awoke at eight. No regret, no desire to escape the toil of keeping up with the arduous merriment of the Bunch, was so great as his feeling of social inferiority when he failed to keep up. To be the "livest" of them was as much his ambition now as it had been to excel at making money, at playing golf, at motor-driving, at oratory, at climbing to the McKelvey set. But occasionally he failed.
He found that Pete and the other young men considered the Bunch too austerely polite and the Carrie who merely kissed behind doors too embarrassingly monogamic. As Babbitt sneaked from Floral Heights down to the Bunch, so the young gallants sneaked from the proprieties of the Bunch off to "times" with bouncing young women whom they picked up in department stores and at hotel coatrooms. Once Babbitt tried to accompany them. There was a motor car, a bottle of whisky, and for him a grubby shrieking cash-girl from Parcher and Stein's. He sat beside her and worried. He was apparently expected to "jolly her along," but when she sang out, "Hey, leggo, quit crushing me cootie-garage," he did not quite know how to go on. They sat in the back room of a saloon, and Babbitt had a headache, was confused by their new slang looked at them benevolently, wanted to go home, and had a drink—a good many drinks.
Two evenings after, Fulton Bemis, the surly older man of the Bunch, took Babbitt aside and grunted, "Look here, it's none of my business, and God knows I always lap up my share of the hootch, but don't you think you better watch yourself? You're one of these enthusiastic chumps that always overdo things. D' you realize you're throwing in the booze as fast as you can, and you eat one cigarette right after another? Better cut it out for a while."
Babbitt tearfully said that good old Fult was a prince, and yes, he certainly would cut it out, and thereafter he lighted a cigarette and took a drink and had a terrific quarrel with Tanis when she caught him being affectionate with Carrie Nork.
Next morning he hated himself that he should have sunk into a position where a fifteenth-rater like Fulton Bemis could rebuke him. He perceived that, since he was making love to every woman possible, Tanis was no longer his one pure star, and he wondered whether she had ever been anything more to him than A Woman. And if Bemis had spoken to him, were other people talking about him? He suspiciously watched the men at the Athletic Club that noon. It seemed to him that they were uneasy. They had been talking about him then? He was angry. He became belligerent. He not only defended Seneca Doane but even made fun of the Y. M. C. A, Vergil Gunch was rather brief in his answers.
Afterward Babbitt was not angry. He was afraid. He did not go to the next lunch of the Boosters' Club but hid in a cheap restaurant, and, while he munched a ham-and-egg sandwich and sipped coffee from a cup on the arm of his chair, he worried.
Four days later, when the Bunch were having one of their best parties, Babbitt drove them to the skating-rink which had been laid out on the Chaloosa River. After a thaw the streets had frozen in smooth ice. Down those wide endless streets the wind rattled between the rows of wooden houses, and the whole Bellevue district seemed a frontier town. Even with skid chains on all four wheels, Babbitt was afraid of sliding, and when he came to the long slide of a hill he crawled down, both brakes on. Slewing round a corner came a less cautious car. It skidded, it almost raked them with its rear fenders. In relief at their escape the Bunch—Tanis, Minnie Sonntag, Pete, Fulton Bemis—shouted "Oh, baby," and waved their hands to the agitated other driver. Then Babbitt saw Professor Pumphrey laboriously crawling up hill, afoot, Staring owlishly at the revelers. He was sure that Pumphrey recognized him and saw Tanis kiss him as she crowed, "You're such a good driver!"
At lunch next day he probed Pumphrey with "Out last night with my brother and some friends of his. Gosh, what driving! Slippery 's glass. Thought I saw you hiking up the Bellevue Avenue Hill."
"No, I wasn't—I didn't see you," said Pumphrey, hastily, rather guiltily.
Perhaps two days afterward Babbitt took Tanis to lunch at the Hotel Thornleigh. She who had seemed well content to wait for him at her flat had begun to hint with melancholy smiles that he must think but little of her if he never introduced her to his friends, if he was unwilling to be seen with her except at the movies. He thought of taking her to the "ladies' annex" of the Athletic Club, but that was too dangerous. He would have to introduce her and, oh, people might misunderstand and—He compromised on the Thornleigh.
She was unusually smart, all in black: small black tricorne hat, short black caracul coat, loose and swinging, and austere high-necked black velvet frock at a time when most street costumes were like evening gowns. Perhaps she was too smart. Every one in the gold and oak restaurant of the Thornleigh was staring at her as Babbitt followed her to a table. He uneasily hoped that the head-waiter would give them a discreet place behind a pillar, but they were stationed on the center aisle. Tanis seemed not to notice her admirers; she smiled at Babbitt with a lavish "Oh, isn't this nice! What a peppy-looking orchestra!" Babbitt had difficulty in being lavish in return, for two tables away he saw Vergil Gunch. All through the meal Gunch watched them, while Babbitt watched himself being watched and lugubriously tried to keep from spoiling Tanis's gaiety. "I felt like a spree to-day," she rippled. "I love the Thornleigh, don't you? It's so live and yet so—so refined."
He made talk about the Thornleigh, the service, the food, the people he recognized in the restaurant, all but Vergil Gunch. There did not seem to be anything else to talk of. He smiled conscientiously at her fluttering jests; he agreed with her that Minnie Sonntag was "so hard to get along with," and young Pete "such a silly lazy kid, really just no good at all." But he himself had nothing to say. He considered telling her his worries about Gunch, but—"oh, gosh, it was too much work to go into the whole thing and explain about Verg and everything."
He was relieved when he put Tanis on a trolley; he was cheerful in the familiar simplicities of his office.
At four o'clock Vergil Gunch called on him.
Babbitt was agitated, but Gunch began in a friendly way:
"How's the boy? Say, some of us are getting up a scheme we'd kind of like to have you come in on."
"Fine, Verg. Shoot."
"You know during the war we had the Undesirable Element, the Reds and walking delegates and just the plain common grouches, dead to rights, and so did we for quite a while after the war, but folks forget about the danger and that gives these cranks a chance to begin working underground again, especially a lot of these parlor socialists. Well, it's up to the folks that do a little sound thinking to make a conscious effort to keep bucking these fellows. Some guy back East has organized a society called the Good Citizens' League for just that purpose. Of course the Chamber of Commerce and the American Legion and so on do a fine work in keeping the decent people in the saddle, but they're devoted to so many other causes that they can't attend to this one problem properly. But the Good Citizens' League, the G. C. L., they stick right to it. Oh, the G. C. L. has to have some other ostensible purposes—frinstance here in Zenith I think it ought to support the park-extension project and the City Planning Committee—and then, too, it should have a social aspect, being made up of the best people—have dances and so on, especially as one of the best ways it can put the kibosh on cranks is to apply this social boycott business to folks big enough so you can't reach 'em otherwise. Then if that don't work, the G. C. L. can finally send a little delegation around to inform folks that get too flip that they got to conform to decent standards and quit shooting off their mouths so free. Don't it sound like the organization could do a great work? We've already got some of the strongest men in town, and of course we want you in. How about it?"
Babbitt was uncomfortable. He felt a compulsion back to all the standards he had so vaguely yet so desperately been fleeing. He fumbled:
"I suppose you'd especially light on fellows like Seneca Doane and try to make 'em—"
"You bet your sweet life we would! Look here, old Georgie: I've never for one moment believed you meant it when you've defended Doane, and the strikers and so on, at the Club. I knew you were simply kidding those poor galoots like Sid Finkelstein.... At least I certainly hope you were kidding!"
"Oh, well—sure—Course you might say—" Babbitt was conscious of how feeble he sounded, conscious of Gunch's mature and relentless eye. "Gosh, you know where I stand! I'm no labor agitator! I'm a business man, first, last, and all the time! But—but honestly, I don't think Doane means so badly, and you got to remember he's an old friend of mine."
"George, when it comes right down to a struggle between decency and the security of our homes on the one hand, and red ruin and those lazy dogs plotting for free beer on the other, you got to give up even old friendships. 'He that is not with me is against me.'"
"Ye-es, I suppose—"
"How about it? Going to join us in the Good Citizens' League?"
"I'll have to think it over, Verg."
"All right, just as you say." Babbitt was relieved to be let off so easily, but Gunch went on: "George, I don't know what's come over you; none of us do; and we've talked a lot about you. For a while we figured out you'd been upset by what happened to poor Riesling, and we forgave you for any fool thing you said, but that's old stuff now, George, and we can't make out what's got into you. Personally, I've always defended you, but I must say it's getting too much for me. All the boys at the Athletic Club and the Boosters' are sore, the way you go on deliberately touting Doane and his bunch of hell-hounds, and talking about being liberal—which means being wishy-washy—and even saying this preacher guy Ingram isn't a professional free-love artist. And then the way you been carrying on personally! Joe Pumphrey says he saw you out the other night with a gang of totties, all stewed to the gills, and here to-day coming right into the Thornleigh with a—well, she may be all right and a perfect lady, but she certainly did look like a pretty gay skirt for a fellow with his wife out of town to be taking to lunch. Didn't look well. What the devil has come over you, George?"
"Strikes me there's a lot of fellows that know more about my personal business than I do myself!"
"Now don't go getting sore at me because I come out flatfooted like a friend and say what I think instead of tattling behind your back, the way a whole lot of 'em do. I tell you George, you got a position in the community, and the community expects you to live up to it. And—Better think over joining the Good Citizens' League. See you about it later."
He was gone.
That evening Babbitt dined alone. He saw all the Clan of Good Fellows peering through the restaurant window, spying on him. Fear sat beside him, and he told himself that to-night he would not go to Tanis's flat; and he did not go . . . till late.
THE summer before, Mrs. Babbitt's letters had crackled with desire to return to Zenith. Now they said nothing of returning, but a wistful "I suppose everything is going on all right without me" among her dry chronicles of weather and sicknesses hinted to Babbitt that he hadn't been very urgent about her coming. He worried it:
"If she were here, and I went on raising cain like I been doing, she'd have a fit. I got to get hold of myself. I got to learn to play around and yet not make a fool of myself. I can do it, too, if folks like Verg Gunch 'll let me alone, and Myra 'll stay away. But—poor kid, she sounds lonely. Lord, I don't want to hurt her!"
Impulsively he wrote that they missed her, and her next letter said happily that she was coming home.
He persuaded himself that he was eager to see her. He bought roses for the house, he ordered squab for dinner, he had the car cleaned and polished. All the way home from the station with her he was adequate in his accounts of Ted's success in basket-ball at the university, but before they reached Floral Heights there was nothing more to say, and already he felt the force of her stolidity, wondered whether he could remain a good husband and still sneak out of the house this evening for half an hour with the Bunch. When he had housed the car he blundered upstairs, into the familiar talcum-scented warmth of her presence, blaring, "Help you unpack your bag?"
"No, I can do it."
Slowly she turned, holding up a small box, and slowly she said, "I brought you a present, just a new cigar-case. I don't know if you'd care to have it—"
She was the lonely girl, the brown appealing Myra Thompson, whom he had married, and he almost wept for pity as he kissed her and besought, "Oh, honey, honey, CARE to have it? Of course I do! I'm awful proud you brought it to me. And I needed a new case badly."
He wondered how he would get rid of the case he had bought the week before.
"And you really are glad to see me back?"
"Why, you poor kiddy, what you been worrying about?"
"Well, you didn't seem to miss me very much."
By the time he had finished his stint of lying they were firmly bound again. By ten that evening it seemed improbable that she had ever been away. There was but one difference: the problem of remaining a respectable husband, a Floral Heights husband, yet seeing Tanis and the Bunch with frequency. He had promised to telephone to Tanis that evening, and now it was melodramatically impossible. He prowled about the telephone, impulsively thrusting out a hand to lift the receiver, but never quite daring to risk it. Nor could he find a reason for slipping down to the drug store on Smith Street, with its telephone-booth. He was laden with responsibility till he threw it off with the speculation: "Why the deuce should I fret so about not being able to 'phone Tanis? She can get along without me. I don't owe her anything. She's a fine girl, but I've given her just as much as she has me. . . . Oh, damn these women and the way they get you all tied up in complications!"
For a week he was attentive to his wife, took her to the theater, to dinner at the Littlefields'; then the old weary dodging and shifting began and at least two evenings a week he spent with the Bunch. He still made pretense of going to the Elks and to committee-meetings but less and less did he trouble to have his excuses interesting, less and less did she affect to believe them. He was certain that she knew he was associating with what Floral Heights called "a sporty crowd," yet neither of them acknowledged it. In matrimonial geography the distance between the first mute recognition of a break and the admission thereof is as great as the distance between the first naive faith and the first doubting.
As he began to drift away he also began to see her as a human being, to like and dislike her instead of accepting her as a comparatively movable part of the furniture, and he compassionated that husband-and-wife relation which, in twenty-five years of married life, had become a separate and real entity. He recalled their high lights the summer vacation in Virginia meadows under the blue wall of the mountains; their motor tour through Ohio, and the exploration of Cleveland, Cincinnati, and Columbus; the birth of Verona; their building of this new house, planned to comfort them through a happy old age—chokingly they had said that it might be the last home either of them would ever have. Yet his most softening remembrance of these dear moments did not keep him from barking at dinner, "Yep, going out f' few hours. Don't sit up for me."
He did not dare now to come home drunk, and though he rejoiced in his return to high morality and spoke with gravity to Pete and Fulton Bemis about their drinking, he prickled at Myra's unexpressed criticisms and sulkily meditated that a "fellow couldn't ever learn to handle himself if he was always bossed by a lot of women."
He no longer wondered if Tanis wasn't a bit worn and sentimental. In contrast to the complacent Myra he saw her as swift and air-borne and radiant, a fire-spirit tenderly stooping to the hearth, and however pitifully he brooded on his wife, he longed to be with Tanis.
Then Mrs. Babbitt tore the decent cloak from her unhappiness and the astounded male discovered that she was having a small determined rebellion of her own.
They were beside the fireless fire-place, in the evening.
"Georgie," she said, "you haven't given me the list of your household expenses while I was away."
"No, I—Haven't made it out yet." Very affably: "Gosh, we must try to keep down expenses this year."
"That's so. I don't know where all the money goes to. I try to economize, but it just seems to evaporate."
"I suppose I oughtn't to spend so much on cigars. Don't know but what I'll cut down my smoking, maybe cut it out entirely. I was thinking of a good way to do it, the other day: start on these cubeb cigarettes, and they'd kind of disgust me with smoking."
"Oh, I do wish you would! It isn't that I care, but honestly, George, it is so bad for you to smoke so much. Don't you think you could reduce the amount? And George—I notice now, when you come home from these lodges and all, that sometimes you smell of whisky. Dearie, you know I don't worry so much about the moral side of it, but you have a weak stomach and you can't stand all this drinking."
"Weak stomach, hell! I guess I can carry my booze about as well as most folks!"
"Well, I do think you ought to be careful. Don't you see, dear, I don't want you to get sick."
"Sick rats! I'm not a baby! I guess I ain't going to get sick just because maybe once a week I shoot a highball! That's the trouble with women. They always exaggerate so."
"George, I don't think you ought to talk that way when I'm just speaking for your own good."
"I know, but gosh all fishhooks, that's the trouble with women! They're always criticizing and commenting and bringing things up, and then they say it's 'for your own good'!"
"Why, George, that's not a nice way to talk, to answer me so short."
"Well, I didn't mean to answer short, but gosh, talking as if I was a kindergarten brat, not able to tote one highball without calling for the St. Mary's ambulance! A fine idea you must have of me!"
"Oh, it isn't that; it's just—I don't want to see you get sick and—My, I didn't know it was so late! Don't forget to give me those household accounts for the time while I was away."
"Oh, thunder, what's the use of taking the trouble to make 'em out now? Let's just skip 'em for that period."
"Why, George Babbitt, in all the years we've been married we've never failed to keep a complete account of every penny we've spent!"
"No. Maybe that's the trouble with us."
"What in the world do you mean?"
"Oh, I don't mean anything, only—Sometimes I get so darn sick and tired of all this routine and the accounting at the office and expenses at home and fussing and stewing and fretting and wearing myself out worrying over a lot of junk that doesn't really mean a doggone thing, and being so careful and—Good Lord, what do you think I'm made for? I could have been a darn good orator, and here I fuss and fret and worry—"
"Don't you suppose I ever get tired of fussing? I get so bored with ordering three meals a day, three hundred and sixty-five days a year, and ruining my eyes over that horrid sewing-machine, and looking after your clothes and Rone's and Ted's and Tinka's and everybody's, and the laundry, and darning socks, and going down to the Piggly Wiggly to market, and bringing my basket home to save money on the cash-and-carry and—EVERYTHING!"
"Well, gosh," with a certain astonishment, "I suppose maybe you do! But talk about—Here I have to be in the office every single day, while you can go out all afternoon and see folks and visit with the neighbors and do any blinkin' thing you want to!"
"Yes, and a fine lot of good that does me! Just talking over the same old things with the same old crowd, while you have all sorts of interesting people coming in to see you at the office."
"Interesting! Cranky old dames that want to know why I haven't rented their dear precious homes for about seven times their value, and bunch of old crabs panning the everlasting daylights out of me because they don't receive every cent of their rentals by three G.M. on the second of the month! Sure! Interesting! Just as interesting as the small pox!"
"Now, George, I will not have you shouting at me that way!"
"Well, it gets my goat the way women figure out that a man doesn't do a darn thing but sit on his chair and have lovey-dovey conferences with a lot of classy dames and give 'em the glad eye!"
"I guess you manage to give them a glad enough eye when they do come in."
"What do you mean? Mean I'm chasing flappers?"
"I should hope not—at your age!"
"Now you look here! You may not believe it—Of course all you see is fat little Georgie Babbitt. Sure! Handy man around the house! Fixes the furnace when the furnace-man doesn't show up, and pays the bills, but dull, awful dull! Well, you may not believe it, but there's some women that think old George Babbitt isn't such a bad scout! They think he's not so bad-looking, not so bad that it hurts anyway, and he's got a pretty good line of guff, and some even think he shakes a darn wicked Walkover at dancing!"
"Yes." She spoke slowly. "I haven't much doubt that when I'm away you manage to find people who properly appreciate you."
"Well, I just mean—" he protested, with a sound of denial. Then he was angered into semi-honesty. "You bet I do! I find plenty of folks, and doggone nice ones, that don't think I'm a weak-stomached baby!"
"That's exactly what I was saying! You can run around with anybody you please, but I'm supposed to sit here and wait for you. You have the chance to get all sorts of culture and everything, and I just stay home—"
"Well, gosh almighty, there's nothing to prevent your reading books and going to lectures and all that junk, is there?"
"George, I told you, I won't have you shouting at me like that! I don't know what's come over you. You never used to speak to me in this cranky way."
"I didn't mean to sound cranky, but gosh, it certainly makes me sore to get the blame because you don't keep up with things."
"I'm going to! Will you help me?"
"Sure. Anything I can do to help you in the culture-grabbing line—yours to oblige, G. F. Babbitt."
"Very well then, I want you to go to Mrs. Mudge's New Thought meeting with me, next Sunday afternoon."
"Mrs. Who's which?"
"Mrs. Opal Emerson Mudge. The field-lecturer for the American New Thought League. She's going to speak on 'Cultivating the Sun Spirit' before the League of the Higher Illumination, at the Thornleigh."
"Oh, punk! New Thought! Hashed thought with a poached egg! 'Cultivating the—' It sounds like 'Why is a mouse when it spins?' That's a fine spiel for a good Presbyterian to be going to, when you can hear Doc Drew!"
"Reverend Drew is a scholar and a pulpit orator and all that, but he hasn't got the Inner Ferment, as Mrs. Mudge calls it; he hasn't any inspiration for the New Era. Women need inspiration now. So I want you to come, as you promised."
The Zenith branch of the League of the Higher Illumination met in the smaller ballroom at the Hotel Thornleigh, a refined apartment with pale green walls and plaster wreaths of roses, refined parquet flooring, and ultra-refined frail gilt chairs. Here were gathered sixty-five women and ten men. Most of the men slouched in their chairs and wriggled, while their wives sat rigidly at attention, but two of them—red-necked, meaty men—were as respectably devout as their wives. They were newly rich contractors who, having bought houses, motors, hand-painted pictures, and gentlemanliness, were now buying a refined ready-made philosophy. It had been a toss-up with them whether to buy New Thought, Christian Science, or a good standard high-church model of Episcopalianism.
In the flesh, Mrs. Opal Emerson Mudge fell somewhat short of a prophetic aspect. She was pony-built and plump, with the face of a haughty Pekingese, a button of a nose, and arms so short that, despite her most indignant endeavors, she could not clasp her hands in front of her as she sat on the platform waiting. Her frock of taffeta and green velvet, with three strings of glass beads, and large folding eye-glasses dangling from a black ribbon, was a triumph of refinement.
Mrs. Mudge was introduced by the president of the League of the Higher Illumination, an oldish young woman with a yearning voice, white spats, and a mustache. She said that Mrs. Mudge would now make it plain to the simplest intellect how the Sun Spirit could be cultivated, and they who had been thinking about cultivating one would do well to treasure Mrs. Mudge's words, because even Zenith (and everybody knew that Zenith stood in the van of spiritual and New Thought progress) didn't often have the opportunity to sit at the feet of such an inspiring Optimist and Metaphysical Seer as Mrs. Opal Emerson Mudge, who had lived the Life of Wider Usefulness through Concentration, and in the Silence found those Secrets of Mental Control and the Inner Key which were immediately going to transform and bring Peace, Power, and Prosperity to the unhappy nations; and so, friends, would they for this precious gem-studded hour forget the Illusions of the Seeming Real, and in the actualization of the deep-lying Veritas pass, along with Mrs. Opal Emerson Mudge, to the Realm Beautiful.
If Mrs. Mudge was rather pudgier than one would like one's swamis, yogis, seers, and initiates, yet her voice had the real professional note. It was refined and optimistic; it was overpoweringly calm; it flowed on relentlessly, without one comma, till Babbitt was hypnotized. Her favorite word was "always," which she pronounced olllllle-ways. Her principal gesture was a pontifical but thoroughly ladylike blessing with two stubby fingers.
She explained about this matter of Spiritual Saturation:
"There are those—"
Of "those" she made a linked sweetness long drawn out; a far-off delicate call in a twilight minor. It chastely rebuked the restless husbands, yet brought them a message of healing.
"There are those who have seen the rim and outer seeming of the logos there are those who have glimpsed and in enthusiasm possessed themselves of some segment and portion of the Logos there are those who thus flicked but not penetrated and radioactivated by the Dynamis go always to and fro assertative that they possess and are possessed of the Logos and the Metaphysikos but this word I bring you this concept I enlarge that those that are not utter are not even inceptive and that holiness is in its definitive essence always always always whole-iness and—"
It proved that the Essence of the Sun Spirit was Truth, but its Aura and Effluxion were Cheerfulness:
"Face always the day with the dawn-laugh with the enthusiasm of the initiate who perceives that all works together in the revolutions of the Wheel and who answers the strictures of the Soured Souls of the Destructionists with a Glad Affirmation—"
It went on for about an hour and seven minutes.
At the end Mrs. Mudge spoke with more vigor and punctuation:
"Now let me suggest to all of you the advantages of the Theosophical and Pantheistic Oriental Reading Circle, which I represent. Our object is to unite all the manifestations of the New Era into one cohesive whole—New Thought, Christian Science, Theosophy, Vedanta, Bahaism, and the other sparks from the one New Light. The subscription is but ten dollars a year, and for this mere pittance the members receive not only the monthly magazine, Pearls of Healing, but the privilege of sending right to the president, our revered Mother Dobbs, any questions regarding spiritual progress, matrimonial problems, health and well-being questions, financial difficulties, and—"
They listened to her with adoring attention. They looked genteel. They looked ironed-out. They coughed politely, and crossed their legs with quietness, and in expensive linen handkerchiefs they blew their noses with a delicacy altogether optimistic and refined.
As for Babbitt, he sat and suffered.
When they were blessedly out in the air again, when they drove home through a wind smelling of snow and honest sun, he dared not speak. They had been too near to quarreling, these days. Mrs. Babbitt forced it:
"Did you enjoy Mrs. Mudge's talk?"
"Well I—What did you get out of it?"
"Oh, it starts a person thinking. It gets you out of a routine of ordinary thoughts."
"Well, I'll hand it to Opal she isn't ordinary, but gosh—Honest, did that stuff mean anything to you?"
"Of course I'm not trained in metaphysics, and there was lots I couldn't quite grasp, but I did feel it was inspiring. And she speaks so readily. I do think you ought to have got something out of it."
"Well, I didn't! I swear, I was simply astonished, the way those women lapped it up! Why the dickens they want to put in their time listening to all that blaa when they—"
"It's certainly better for them than going to roadhouses and smoking and drinking!"
"I don't know whether it is or not! Personally I don't see a whole lot of difference. In both cases they're trying to get away from themselves—most everybody is, these days, I guess. And I'd certainly get a whole lot more out of hoofing it in a good lively dance, even in some dive, than sitting looking as if my collar was too tight, and feeling too scared to spit, and listening to Opal chewing her words."
"I'm sure you do! You're very fond of dives. No doubt you saw a lot of them while I was away!"
"Look here! You been doing a hell of a lot of insinuating and hinting around lately, as if I were leading a double life or something, and I'm damn sick of it, and I don't want to hear anything more about it!"
"Why, George Babbitt! Do you realize what you're saying? Why, George, in all our years together you've never talked to me like that!"
"It's about time then!"
"Lately you've been getting worse and worse, and now, finally, you're cursing and swearing at me and shouting at me, and your voice so ugly and hateful—I just shudder!"
"Oh, rats, quit exaggerating! I wasn't shouting, or swearing either."
"I wish you could hear your own voice! Maybe you don't realize how it sounds. But even so—You never used to talk like that. You simply COULDN'T talk this way if something dreadful hadn't happened to you."
His mind was hard. With amazement he found that he wasn't particularly sorry. It was only with an effort that he made himself more agreeable: "Well, gosh, I didn't mean to get sore."
"George, do you realize that we can't go on like this, getting farther and farther apart, and you ruder and ruder to me? I just don't know what's going to happen."
He had a moment's pity for her bewilderment; he thought of how many deep and tender things would be hurt if they really "couldn't go on like this." But his pity was impersonal, and he was wondering, "Wouldn't it maybe be a good thing if—Not a divorce and all that, o' course, but kind of a little more independence?"
While she looked at him pleadingly he drove on in a dreadful silence.
WHEN he was away from her, while he kicked about the garage and swept the snow off the running-board and examined a cracked hose-connection, he repented, he was alarmed and astonished that he could have flared out at his wife, and thought fondly how much more lasting she was than the flighty Bunch. He went in to mumble that he was "sorry, didn't mean to be grouchy," and to inquire as to her interest in movies. But in the darkness of the movie theater he brooded that he'd "gone and tied himself up to Myra all over again." He had some satisfaction in taking it out on Tanis Judique. "Hang Tanis anyway! Why'd she gone and got him into these mix-ups and made him all jumpy and nervous and cranky? Too many complications! Cut 'em out!"
He wanted peace. For ten days he did not see Tanis nor telephone to her, and instantly she put upon him the compulsion which he hated. When he had stayed away from her for five days, hourly taking pride in his resoluteness and hourly picturing how greatly Tanis must miss him, Miss McGoun reported, "Mrs. Judique on the 'phone. Like t' speak t' you 'bout some repairs."
Tanis was quick and quiet:
"Mr. Babbitt? Oh, George, this is Tanis. I haven't seen you for weeks—days, anyway. You aren't sick, are you?"
"No, just been terribly rushed. I, uh, I think there'll be a big revival of building this year. Got to, uh, got to work hard."
"Of course, my man! I want you to. You know I'm terribly ambitious for you; much more than I am for myself. I just don't want you to forget poor Tanis. Will you call me up soon?"
"Sure! Sure! You bet!"
"Please do. I sha'n't call you again."
He meditated, "Poor kid! . . . But gosh, she oughtn't to 'phone me at the office.... She's a wonder—sympathy 'ambitious for me.' . . . But gosh, I won't be made and compelled to call her up till I get ready. Darn these women, the way they make demands! It'll be one long old time before I see her! . . . But gosh, I'd like to see her to-night—sweet little thing.... Oh, cut that, son! Now you've broken away, be wise!"
She did not telephone again, nor he, but after five more days she wrote to him:
Have I offended you? You must know, dear, I didn't mean to. I'm so lonely and I need somebody to cheer me up. Why didn't you come to the nice party we had at Carrie's last evening I remember she invited you. Can't you come around here to-morrow Thur evening? I shall be alone and hope to see you.
His reflections were numerous:
"Doggone it, why can't she let me alone? Why can't women ever learn a fellow hates to be bulldozed? And they always take advantage of you by yelling how lonely they are.
"Now that isn't nice of you, young fella. She's a fine, square, straight girl, and she does get lonely. She writes a swell hand. Nice-looking stationery. Plain. Refined. I guess I'll have to go see her. Well, thank God, I got till to-morrow night free of her, anyway.
"She's nice but—Hang it, I won't be MADE to do things! I'm not married to her. No, nor by golly going to be!
"Oh, rats, I suppose I better go see her."
Thursday, the to-morrow of Tanis's note, was full of emotional crises. At the Roughnecks' Table at the club, Verg Gunch talked of the Good Citizens' League and (it seemed to Babbitt) deliberately left him out of the invitations to join. Old Mat Penniman, the general utility man at Babbitt's office, had Troubles, and came in to groan about them: his oldest boy was "no good," his wife was sick, and he had quarreled with his brother-in-law. Conrad Lyte also had Troubles, and since Lyte was one of his best clients, Babbitt had to listen to them. Mr. Lyte, it appeared, was suffering from a peculiarly interesting neuralgia, and the garage had overcharged him. When Babbitt came home, everybody had Troubles: his wife was simultaneously thinking about discharging the impudent new maid, and worried lest the maid leave; and Tinka desired to denounce her teacher.
"Oh, quit fussing!" Babbitt fussed. "You never hear me whining about my Troubles, and yet if you had to run a real-estate office—Why, to-day I found Miss Bannigan was two days behind with her accounts, and I pinched my finger in my desk, and Lyte was in and just as unreasonable as ever."
He was so vexed that after dinner, when it was time for a tactful escape to Tanis, he merely grumped to his wife, "Got to go out. Be back by eleven, should think."
"Oh! You're going out again?"
"Again! What do you mean 'again'! Haven't hardly been out of the house for a week!"
"Are you—are you going to the Elks?"
"Nope. Got to see some people."
Though this time he heard his own voice and knew that it was curt, though she was looking at him with wide-eyed reproach, he stumped into the hall, jerked on his ulster and furlined gloves, and went out to start the car.
He was relieved to find Tanis cheerful, unreproachful, and brilliant in a frock of brown net over gold tissue. "You poor man, having to come out on a night like this! It's terribly cold. Don't you think a small highball would be nice?"
"Now, by golly, there's a woman with savvy! I think we could more or less stand a highball if it wasn't too long a one—not over a foot tall!"
He kissed her with careless heartiness, he forgot the compulsion of her demands, he stretched in a large chair and felt that he had beautifully come home. He was suddenly loquacious; he told her what a noble and misunderstood man he was, and how superior to Pete, Fulton Bemis, and the other men of their acquaintance; and she, bending forward, chin in charming hand, brightly agreed. But when he forced himself to ask, "Well, honey, how's things with YOU," she took his duty-question seriously, and he discovered that she too had Troubles:
"Oh, all right but—I did get so angry with Carrie. She told Minnie that I told her that Minnie was an awful tightwad, and Minnie told me Carrie had told her, and of course I told her I hadn't said anything of the kind, and then Carrie found Minnie had told me, and she was simply furious because Minnie had told me, and of course I was just boiling because Carrie had told her I'd told her, and then we all met up at Fulton's—his wife is away—thank heavens!—oh, there's the dandiest floor in his house to dance on—and we were all of us simply furious at each other and—Oh, I do hate that kind of a mix-up, don't you? I mean—it's so lacking in refinement, but—And Mother wants to come and stay with me for a whole month, and of course I do love her, I suppose I do, but honestly, she'll cramp my style something dreadful—she never can learn not to comment, and she always wants to know where I'm going when I go out evenings, and if I lie to her she always spies around and ferrets around and finds out where I've been, and then she looks like Patience on a Monument till I could just scream. And oh, I MUST tell you—You know I never talk about myself; I just hate people who do, don't you? But—I feel so stupid to-night, and I know I must be boring you with all this but—What would you do about Mother?"
He gave her facile masculine advice. She was to put off her mother's stay. She was to tell Carrie to go to the deuce. For these valuable revelations she thanked him, and they ambled into the familiar gossip of the Bunch. Of what a sentimental fool was Carrie. Of what a lazy brat was Pete. Of how nice Fulton Bemis could be—"course lots of people think he's a regular old grouch when they meet him because he doesn't give 'em the glad hand the first crack out of the box, but when they get to know him, he's a corker."
But as they had gone conscientiously through each of these analyses before, the conversation staggered. Babbitt tried to be intellectual and deal with General Topics. He said some thoroughly sound things about Disarmament, and broad-mindedness and liberalism; but it seemed to him that General Topics interested Tanis only when she could apply them to Pete, Carrie, or themselves. He was distressingly conscious of their silence. He tried to stir her into chattering again, but silence rose like a gray presence and hovered between them.
"I, uh—" he labored. "It strikes me—it strikes me that unemployment is lessening."
"Maybe Pete will get a decent job, then."
Desperately he essayed, "What's the trouble, old honey? You seem kind of quiet to-night."
"Am I? Oh, I'm not. But—do you really care whether I am or not?"
"Care? Sure! Course I do!"
"Do you really?" She swooped on him, sat on the arm of his chair.
He hated the emotional drain of having to appear fond of her. He stroked her hand, smiled up at her dutifully, and sank back.
"George, I wonder if you really like me at all?"
"Course I do, silly."
"Do you really, precious? Do you care a bit?"
"Why certainly! You don't suppose I'd be here if I didn't!"
"Now see here, young man, I won't have you speaking to me in that huffy way!"
"I didn't mean to sound huffy. I just—" In injured and rather childish tones: "Gosh almighty, it makes me tired the way everybody says I sound huffy when I just talk natural! Do they expect me to sing it or something?"
"Who do you mean by 'everybody'? How many other ladies have you been consoling?"
"Look here now, I won't have this hinting!"
Humbly: "I know, dear. I was only teasing. I know it didn't mean to talk huffy—it was just tired. Forgive bad Tanis. But say you love me, say it!"
"I love you.... Course I do."
"Yes, you do!" cynically. "Oh, darling, I don't mean to be rude but—I get so lonely. I feel so useless. Nobody needs me, nothing I can do for anybody. And you know, dear, I'm so active—I could be if there was something to do. And I am young, aren't I! I'm not an old thing! I'm not old and stupid, am I?"
He had to assure her. She stroked his hair, and he had to look pleased under that touch, the more demanding in its beguiling softness. He was impatient. He wanted to flee out to a hard, sure, unemotional man-world. Through her delicate and caressing fingers she may have caught something of his shrugging distaste. She left him—he was for the moment buoyantly relieved—she dragged a footstool to his feet and sat looking beseechingly up at him. But as in many men the cringing of a dog, the flinching of a frightened child, rouse not pity but a surprised and jerky cruelty, so her humility only annoyed him. And he saw her now as middle-aged, as beginning to be old. Even while he detested his own thoughts, they rode him. She was old, he winced. Old! He noted how the soft flesh was creasing into webby folds beneath her chin, below her eyes, at the base of her wrists. A patch of her throat had a minute roughness like the crumbs from a rubber eraser. Old! She was younger in years than himself, yet it was sickening to have her yearning up at him with rolling great eyes—as if, he shuddered, his own aunt were making love to him.
He fretted inwardly, "I'm through with this asinine fooling around. I'm going to cut her out. She's a darn decent nice woman, and I don't want to hurt her, but it'll hurt a lot less to cut her right out, like a good clean surgical operation."
He was on his feet. He was speaking urgently. By every rule of self-esteem, he had to prove to her, and to himself, that it was her fault.
"I suppose maybe I'm kind of out of sorts to-night, but honest, honey, when I stayed away for a while to catch up on work and everything and figure out where I was at, you ought to have been cannier and waited till I came back. Can't you see, dear, when you MADE me come, I—being about an average bull-headed chump—my tendency was to resist? Listen, dear, I'm going now—"
"Not for a while, precious! No!"
"Yep. Right now. And then sometime we'll see about the future."
"What do you mean, dear, 'about the future'? Have I done something I oughtn't to? Oh, I'm so dreadfully sorry!"
He resolutely put his hands behind him. "Not a thing, God bless you, not a thing. You're as good as they make 'em. But it's just—Good Lord, do you realize I've got things to do in the world? I've got a business to attend to and, you might not believe it, but I've got a wife and kids that I'm awful fond of!" Then only during the murder he was committing was he able to feel nobly virtuous. "I want us to be friends but, gosh, I can't go on this way feeling I got to come up here every so often—"
"Oh, darling, darling, and I've always told you, so carefully, that you were absolutely free. I just wanted you to come around when you were tired and wanted to talk to me, or when you could enjoy our parties—"
She was so reasonable, she was so gently right! It took him an hour to make his escape, with nothing settled and everything horribly settled. In a barren freedom of icy Northern wind he sighed, "Thank God that's over! Poor Tanis, poor darling decent Tanis! But it is over. Absolute! I'm free!"
HIS wife was up when he came in. "Did you have a good time?" she sniffed.
"I did not. I had a rotten time! Anything else I got to explain?"
"George, how can you speak like—Oh, I don't know what's come over you!"
"Good Lord, there's nothing come over me! Why do you look for trouble all the time?" He was warning himself, "Careful! Stop being so disagreeable. Course she feels it, being left alone here all evening." But he forgot his warning as she went on:
"Why do you go out and see all sorts of strange people? I suppose you'll say you've been to another committee-meeting this evening!"
"Nope. I've been calling on a woman. We sat by the fire and kidded each other and had a whale of a good time, if you want to know!"
"Well—From the way you say it, I suppose it's my fault you went there! I probably sent you!"
"Well, upon my word—"
"You hate 'strange people' as you call 'em. If you had your way, I'd be as much of an old stick-in-the-mud as Howard Littlefield. You never want to have anybody with any git to 'em at the house; you want a bunch of old stiffs that sit around and gas about the weather. You're doing your level best to make me old. Well, let me tell you, I'm not going to have—"
Overwhelmed she bent to his unprecedented tirade, and in answer she mourned:
"Oh, dearest, I don't think that's true. I don't mean to make you old, I know. Perhaps you're partly right. Perhaps I am slow about getting acquainted with new people. But when you think of all the dear good times we have, and the supper-parties and the movies and all—"
With true masculine wiles he not only convinced himself that she had injured him but, by the loudness of his voice and the brutality of his attack, he convinced her also, and presently he had her apologizing for his having spent the evening with Tanis. He went up to bed well pleased, not only the master but the martyr of the household. For a distasteful moment after he had lain down he wondered if he had been altogether just. "Ought to be ashamed, bullying her. Maybe there is her side to things. Maybe she hasn't had such a bloomin' hectic time herself. But I don't care! Good for her to get waked up a little. And I'm going to keep free. Of her and Tanis and the fellows at the club and everybody. I'm going to run my own life!"
In this mood he was particularly objectionable at the Boosters' Club lunch next day. They were addressed by a congressman who had just returned from an exhaustive three-months study of the finances, ethnology, political systems, linguistic divisions, mineral resources, and agriculture of Germany, France, Great Britain, Italy, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Jugoslavia, and Bulgaria. He told them all about those subjects, together with three funny stories about European misconceptions of America and some spirited words on the necessity of keeping ignorant foreigners out of America.
"Say, that was a mighty informative talk. Real he-stuff," said Sidney Finkelstein.
But the disaffected Babbitt grumbled, "Four-flusher! Bunch of hot air! And what's the matter with the immigrants? Gosh, they aren't all ignorant, and I got a hunch we're all descended from immigrants ourselves."
"Oh, you make me tired!" said Mr. Finkelstein.
Babbitt was aware that Dr. A. I. Dilling was sternly listening from across the table. Dr. Dilling was one of the most important men in the Boosters'. He was not a physician but a surgeon, a more romantic and sounding occupation. He was an intense large man with a boiling of black hair and a thick black mustache. The newspapers often chronicled his operations; he was professor of surgery in the State University; he went to dinner at the very best houses on Royal Ridge; and he was said to be worth several hundred thousand dollars. It was dismaying to Babbitt to have such a person glower at him. He hastily praised the congressman's wit, to Sidney Finkelstein, but for Dr. Dilling's benefit.