That afternoon three men shouldered into Babbitt's office with the air of a Vigilante committee in frontier days. They were large, resolute, big-jawed men, and they were all high lords in the land of Zenith—Dr. Dilling the surgeon, Charles McKelvey the contractor, and, most dismaying of all, the white-bearded Colonel Rutherford Snow, owner of the Advocate-Times. In their whelming presence Babbitt felt small and insignificant.
"Well, well, great pleasure, have chairs, what c'n I do for you?" he babbled.
They neither sat nor offered observations on the weather.
"Babbitt," said Colonel Snow, "we've come from the Good Citizens' League. We've decided we want you to join. Vergil Gunch says you don't care to, but I think we can show you a new light. The League is going to combine with the Chamber of Commerce in a campaign for the Open Shop, so it's time for you to put your name down."
In his embarrassment Babbitt could not recall his reasons for not wishing to join the League, if indeed he had ever definitely known them, but he was passionately certain that he did not wish to join, and at the thought of their forcing him he felt a stirring of anger against even these princes of commerce.
"Sorry, Colonel, have to think it over a little," he mumbled.
McKelvey snarled, "That means you're not going to join, George?"
Something black and unfamiliar and ferocious spoke from Babbitt: "Now, you look here, Charley! I'm damned if I'm going to be bullied into joining anything, not even by you plutes!"
"We're not bullying anybody," Dr. Dilling began, but Colonel Snow thrust him aside with, "Certainly we are! We don't mind a little bullying, if it's necessary. Babbitt, the G.C.L. has been talking about you a good deal. You're supposed to be a sensible, clean, responsible man; you always have been; but here lately, for God knows what reason, I hear from all sorts of sources that you're running around with a loose crowd, and what's a whole lot worse, you've actually been advocating and supporting some of the most dangerous elements in town, like this fellow Doane."
"Colonel, that strikes me as my private business."
"Possibly, but we want to have an understanding. You've stood in, you and your father-in-law, with some of the most substantial and forward-looking interests in town, like my friends of the Street Traction Company, and my papers have given you a lot of boosts. Well, you can't expect the decent citizens to go on aiding you if you intend to side with precisely the people who are trying to undermine us."
Babbitt was frightened, but he had an agonized instinct that if he yielded in this he would yield in everything. He protested:
"You're exaggerating, Colonel. I believe in being broad-minded and liberal, but, of course, I'm just as much agin the cranks and blatherskites and labor unions and so on as you are. But fact is, I belong to so many organizations now that I can't do 'em justice, and I want to think it over before I decide about coming into the G.C.L."
Colonel Snow condescended, "Oh, no, I'm not exaggerating! Why the doctor here heard you cussing out and defaming one of the finest types of Republican congressmen, just this noon! And you have entirely the wrong idea about 'thinking over joining.' We're not begging you to join the G.C.L.—we're permitting you to join. I'm not sure, my boy, but what if you put it off it'll be too late. I'm not sure we'll want you then. Better think quick—better think quick!"
The three Vigilantes, formidable in their righteousness, stared at him in a taut silence. Babbitt waited through. He thought nothing at all, he merely waited, while in his echoing head buzzed, "I don't want to join—I don't want to join—I don't want to."
"All right. Sorry for you!" said Colonel Snow, and the three men abruptly turned their beefy backs.
As Babbitt went out to his car that evening he saw Vergil Gunch coming down the block. He raised his hand in salutation, but Gunch ignored it and crossed the street. He was certain that Gunch had seen him. He drove home in sharp discomfort.
His wife attacked at once: "Georgie dear, Muriel Frink was in this afternoon, and she says that Chum says the committee of this Good Citizens' League especially asked you to join and you wouldn't. Don't you think it would be better? You know all the nicest people belong, and the League stands for—"
"I know what the League stands for! It stands for the suppression of free speech and free thought and everything else! I don't propose to be bullied and rushed into joining anything, and it isn't a question of whether it's a good league or a bad league or what the hell kind of a league it is; it's just a question of my refusing to be told I got to—"
"But dear, if you don't join, people might criticize you."
"Let 'em criticize!"
"But I mean NICE people!"
"Rats, I—Matter of fact, this whole League is just a fad. It's like all these other organizations that start off with such a rush and let on they're going to change the whole works, and pretty soon they peter out and everybody forgets all about 'em!"
"But if it's THE fad now, don't you think you—"
"No, I don't! Oh, Myra, please quit nagging me about it. I'm sick of hearing about the confounded G.C.L. I almost wish I'd joined it when Verg first came around, and got it over. And maybe I'd 've come in to-day if the committee hadn't tried to bullyrag me, but, by God, as long as I'm a free-born independent American cit—"
"Now, George, you're talking exactly like the German furnace-man."
"Oh, I am, am I! Then, I won't talk at all!"
He longed, that evening, to see Tanis Judique, to be strengthened by her sympathy. When all the family were up-stairs he got as far as telephoning to her apartment-house, but he was agitated about it and when the janitor answered he blurted, "Nev' mind—I'll call later," and hung up the receiver.
If Babbitt had not been certain about Vergil Gunch's avoiding him, there could be little doubt about William Washington Eathorne, next morning. When Babbitt was driving down to the office he overtook Eathorne's car, with the great banker sitting in anemic solemnity behind his chauffeur. Babbitt waved and cried, "Mornin'!" Eathorne looked at him deliberately, hesitated, and gave him a nod more contemptuous than a direct cut.
Babbitt's partner and father-in-law came in at ten:
"George, what's this I hear about some song and dance you gave Colonel Snow about not wanting to join the G.C.L.? What the dickens you trying to do? Wreck the firm? You don't suppose these Big Guns will stand your bucking them and springing all this 'liberal' poppycock you been getting off lately, do you?"
"Oh, rats, Henry T., you been reading bum fiction. There ain't any such a thing as these plots to keep folks from being liberal. This is a free country. A man can do anything he wants to."
"Course th' ain't any plots. Who said they was? Only if folks get an idea you're scatter-brained and unstable, you don't suppose they'll want to do business with you, do you? One little rumor about your being a crank would do more to ruin this business than all the plots and stuff that these fool story-writers could think up in a month of Sundays."
That afternoon, when the old reliable Conrad Lyte, the merry miser, Conrad Lyte, appeared, and Babbitt suggested his buying a parcel of land in the new residential section of Dorchester, Lyte said hastily, too hastily, "No, no, don't want to go into anything new just now."
A week later Babbitt learned, through Henry Thompson, that the officials of the Street Traction Company were planning another real-estate coup, and that Sanders, Torrey and Wing, not the Babbitt-Thompson Company, were to handle it for them. "I figure that Jake Offutt is kind of leery about the way folks are talking about you. Of course Jake is a rock-ribbed old die-hard, and he probably advised the Traction fellows to get some other broker. George, you got to do something!" trembled Thompson.
And, in a rush, Babbitt agreed. All nonsense the way people misjudged him, but still—He determined to join the Good Citizens' League the next time he was asked, and in furious resignation he waited. He wasn't asked. They ignored him. He did not have the courage to go to the League and beg in, and he took refuge in a shaky boast that he had "gotten away with bucking the whole city. Nobody could dictate to him how he was going to think and act!"
He was jarred as by nothing else when the paragon of stenographers, Miss McGoun, suddenly left him, though her reasons were excellent—she needed a rest, her sister was sick, she might not do any more work for six months. He was uncomfortable with her successor, Miss Havstad. What Miss Havstad's given name was, no one in the office ever knew. It seemed improbable that she had a given name, a lover, a powder-puff, or a digestion. She was so impersonal, this slight, pale, industrious Swede, that it was vulgar to think of her as going to an ordinary home to eat hash. She was a perfectly oiled and enameled machine, and she ought, each evening, to have been dusted off and shut in her desk beside her too-slim, too-frail pencil points. She took dictation swiftly, her typing was perfect, but Babbitt became jumpy when he tried to work with her. She made him feel puffy, and at his best-beloved daily jokes she looked gently inquiring. He longed for Miss McGoun's return, and thought of writing to her.
Then he heard that Miss McGoun had, a week after leaving him, gone over to his dangerous competitors, Sanders, Torrey and Wing.
He was not merely annoyed; he was frightened. "Why did she quit, then?" he worried. "Did she have a hunch my business is going on the rocks? And it was Sanders got the Street Traction deal. Rats—sinking ship!"
Gray fear loomed always by him now. He watched Fritz Weilinger, the young salesman, and wondered if he too would leave. Daily he fancied slights. He noted that he was not asked to speak at the annual Chamber of Commerce dinner. When Orville Jones gave a large poker party and he was not invited, he was certain that he had been snubbed. He was afraid to go to lunch at the Athletic Club, and afraid not to go. He believed that he was spied on; that when he left the table they whispered about him. Everywhere he heard the rustling whispers: in the offices of clients, in the bank when he made a deposit, in his own office, in his own home. Interminably he wondered what They were saying of him. All day long in imaginary conversations he caught them marveling, "Babbitt? Why, say, he's a regular anarchist! You got to admire the fellow for his nerve, the way he turned liberal and, by golly, just absolutely runs his life to suit himself, but say, he's dangerous, that's what he is, and he's got to be shown up."
He was so twitchy that when he rounded a corner and chanced on two acquaintances talking—whispering—his heart leaped, and he stalked by like an embarrassed schoolboy. When he saw his neighbors Howard Littlefield and Orville Jones together, he peered at them, went indoors to escape their spying, and was miserably certain that they had been whispering—plotting—whispering.
Through all his fear ran defiance. He felt stubborn. Sometimes he decided that he had been a very devil of a fellow, as bold as Seneca Doane; sometimes he planned to call on Doane and tell him what a revolutionist he was, and never got beyond the planning. But just as often, when he heard the soft whispers enveloping him he wailed, "Good Lord, what have I done? Just played with the Bunch, and called down Clarence Drum about being such a high-and-mighty sodger. Never catch ME criticizing people and trying to make them accept MY ideas!"
He could not stand the strain. Before long he admitted that he would like to flee back to the security of conformity, provided there was a decent and creditable way to return. But, stubbornly, he would not be forced back; he would not, he swore, "eat dirt."
Only in spirited engagements with his wife did these turbulent fears rise to the surface. She complained that he seemed nervous, that she couldn't understand why he did not want to "drop in at the Littlefields'" for the evening. He tried, but he could not express to her the nebulous facts of his rebellion and punishment. And, with Paul and Tanis lost, he had no one to whom he could talk. "Good Lord, Tinka is the only real friend I have, these days," he sighed, and he clung to the child, played floor-games with her all evening.
He considered going to see Paul in prison, but, though he had a pale curt note from him every week, he thought of Paul as dead. It was Tanis for whom he was longing.
"I thought I was so smart and independent, cutting Tanis out, and I need her, Lord how I need her!" he raged. "Myra simply can't understand. All she sees in life is getting along by being just like other folks. But Tanis, she'd tell me I was all right."
Then he broke, and one evening, late, he did run to Tanis. He had not dared to hope for it, but she was in, and alone. Only she wasn't Tanis. She was a courteous, brow-lifting, ice-armored woman who looked like Tanis. She said, "Yes, George, what is it?" in even and uninterested tones, and he crept away, whipped.
His first comfort was from Ted and Eunice Littlefield.
They danced in one evening when Ted was home from the university, and Ted chuckled, "What's this I hear from Euny, dad? She says her dad says you raised Cain by boosting old Seneca Doane. Hot dog! Give 'em fits! Stir 'em up! This old burg is asleep!" Eunice plumped down on Babbitt's lap, kissed him, nestled her bobbed hair against his chin, and crowed; "I think you're lots nicer than Howard. Why is it," confidentially, "that Howard is such an old grouch? The man has a good heart, and honestly, he's awfully bright, but he never will learn to step on the gas, after all the training I've given him. Don't you think we could do something with him, dearest?"
"Why, Eunice, that isn't a nice way to speak of your papa," Babbitt observed, in the best Floral Heights manner, but he was happy for the first time in weeks. He pictured himself as the veteran liberal strengthened by the loyalty of the young generation. They went out to rifle the ice-box. Babbitt gloated, "If your mother caught us at this, we'd certainly get our come-uppance!" and Eunice became maternal, scrambled a terrifying number of eggs for them, kissed Babbitt on the ear, and in the voice of a brooding abbess marveled, "It beats the devil why feminists like me still go on nursing these men!"
Thus stimulated, Babbitt was reckless when he encountered Sheldon Smeeth, educational director of the Y.M.C.A. and choir-leader of the Chatham Road Church. With one of his damp hands Smeeth imprisoned Babbitt's thick paw while he chanted, "Brother Babbitt, we haven't seen you at church very often lately. I know you're busy with a multitude of details, but you mustn't forget your dear friends at the old church home."
Babbitt shook off the affectionate clasp—Sheldy liked to hold hands for a long time—and snarled, "Well, I guess you fellows can run the show without me. Sorry, Smeeth; got to beat it. G'day."
But afterward he winced, "If that white worm had the nerve to try to drag me back to the Old Church Home, then the holy outfit must have been doing a lot of talking about me, too."
He heard them whispering—whispering—Dr. John Jennison Drew, Cholmondeley Frink, even William Washington Eathorne. The independence seeped out of him and he walked the streets alone, afraid of men's cynical eyes and the incessant hiss of whispering.
HE tried to explain to his wife, as they prepared for bed, how objectionable was Sheldon Smeeth, but all her answer was, "He has such a beautiful voice—so spiritual. I don't think you ought to speak of him like that just because you can't appreciate music!" He saw her then as a stranger; he stared bleakly at this plump and fussy woman with the broad bare arms, and wondered how she had ever come here.
In his chilly cot, turning from aching side to side, he pondered of Tanis. "He'd been a fool to lose her. He had to have somebody he could really talk to. He'd—oh, he'd BUST if he went on stewing about things by himself. And Myra, useless to expect her to understand. Well, rats, no use dodging the issue. Darn shame for two married people to drift apart after all these years; darn rotten shame; but nothing could bring them together now, as long as he refused to let Zenith bully him into taking orders—and he was by golly not going to let anybody bully him into anything, or wheedle him or coax him either!"
He woke at three, roused by a passing motor, and struggled out of bed for a drink of water. As he passed through the bedroom he heard his wife groan. His resentment was night-blurred; he was solicitous in inquiring, "What's the trouble, hon?"
"I've got—such a pain down here in my side—oh, it's just—it tears at me."
"Bad indigestion? Shall I get you some bicarb?"
"Don't think—that would help. I felt funny last evening and yesterday, and then—oh!—it passed away and I got to sleep and—That auto woke me up."
Her voice was laboring like a ship in a storm. He was alarmed.
"I better call the doctor."
"No, no! It'll go away. But maybe you might get me an ice-bag."
He stalked to the bathroom for the ice-bag, down to the kitchen for ice. He felt dramatic in this late-night expedition, but as he gouged the chunk of ice with the dagger-like pick he was cool, steady, mature; and the old friendliness was in his voice as he patted the ice-bag into place on her groin, rumbling, "There, there, that'll be better now." He retired to bed, but he did not sleep. He heard her groan again. Instantly he was up, soothing her, "Still pretty bad, honey?"
"Yes, it just gripes me, and I can't get to sleep."
Her voice was faint. He knew her dread of doctors' verdicts and he did not inform her, but he creaked down-stairs, telephoned to Dr. Earl Patten, and waited, shivering, trying with fuzzy eyes to read a magazine, till he heard the doctor's car.
The doctor was youngish and professionally breezy. He came in as though it were sunny noontime. "Well, George, little trouble, eh? How is she now?" he said busily as, with tremendous and rather irritating cheerfulness, he tossed his coat on a chair and warmed his hands at a radiator. He took charge of the house. Babbitt felt ousted and unimportant as he followed the doctor up to the bedroom, and it was the doctor who chuckled, "Oh, just little stomach-ache" when Verona peeped through her door, begging, "What is it, Dad, what is it?"
To Mrs. Babbitt the doctor said with amiable belligerence, after his examination, "Kind of a bad old pain, eh? I'll give you something to make you sleep, and I think you'll feel better in the morning. I'll come in right after breakfast." But to Babbitt, lying in wait in the lower hall, the doctor sighed, "I don't like the feeling there in her belly. There's some rigidity and some inflammation. She's never had her appendix out has she? Um. Well, no use worrying. I'll be here first thing in the morning, and meantime she'll get some rest. I've given her a hypo. Good night."
Then was Babbitt caught up in the black tempest.
Instantly all the indignations which had been dominating him and the spiritual dramas through which he had struggled became pallid and absurd before the ancient and overwhelming realities, the standard and traditional realities, of sickness and menacing death, the long night, and the thousand steadfast implications of married life. He crept back to her. As she drowsed away in the tropic languor of morphia, he sat on the edge of her bed, holding her hand, and for the first time in many weeks her hand abode trustfully in his.
He draped himself grotesquely in his toweling bathrobe and a pink and white couch-cover, and sat lumpishly in a wing-chair. The bedroom was uncanny in its half-light, which turned the curtains to lurking robbers, the dressing-table to a turreted castle. It smelled of cosmetics, of linen, of sleep. He napped and woke, napped and woke, a hundred times. He heard her move and sigh in slumber; he wondered if there wasn't some officious brisk thing he could do for her, and before he could quite form the thought he was asleep, racked and aching. The night was infinite. When dawn came and the waiting seemed at an end, he fell asleep, and was vexed to have been caught off his guard, to have been aroused by Verona's entrance and her agitated "Oh, what is it, Dad?"
His wife was awake, her face sallow and lifeless in the morning light, but now he did not compare her with Tanis; she was not merely A Woman, to be contrasted with other women, but his own self, and though he might criticize her and nag her, it was only as he might criticize and nag himself, interestedly, unpatronizingly, without the expectation of changing—or any real desire to change—the eternal essence.
With Verona he sounded fatherly again, and firm. He consoled Tinka, who satisfactorily pointed the excitement of the hour by wailing. He ordered early breakfast, and wanted to look at the newspaper, and felt somehow heroic and useful in not looking at it. But there were still crawling and totally unheroic hours of waiting before Dr. Patten returned.
"Don't see much change," said Patten. "I'll be back about eleven, and if you don't mind, I think I'll bring in some other world-famous pill-pedler for consultation, just to be on the safe side. Now George, there's nothing you can do. I'll have Verona keep the ice-bag filled—might as well leave that on, I guess—and you, you better beat it to the office instead of standing around her looking as if you were the patient. The nerve of husbands! Lot more neurotic than the women! They always have to horn in and get all the credit for feeling bad when their wives are ailing. Now have another nice cup of coffee and git!"
Under this derision Babbitt became more matter-of-fact. He drove to the office, tried to dictate letters, tried to telephone and, before the call was answered, forgot to whom he was telephoning. At a quarter after ten he returned home. As he left the down-town traffic and sped up the car, his face was as grimly creased as the mask of tragedy.
His wife greeted him with surprise. "Why did you come back, dear? I think I feel a little better. I told Verona to skip off to her office. Was it wicked of me to go and get sick?"
He knew that she wanted petting, and she got it, joyously. They were curiously happy when he heard Dr. Patten's car in front. He looked out of the window. He was frightened. With Patten was an impatient man with turbulent black hair and a hussar mustache—Dr. A. I. Dilling, the surgeon. Babbitt sputtered with anxiety, tried to conceal it, and hurried down to the door.
Dr. Patten was profusely casual: "Don't want to worry you, old man, but I thought it might be a good stunt to have Dr. Dilling examine her." He gestured toward Dilling as toward a master.
Dilling nodded in his curtest manner and strode up-stairs Babbitt tramped the living-room in agony. Except for his wife's confinements there had never been a major operation in the family, and to him surgery was at once a miracle and an abomination of fear. But when Dilling and Patten came down again he knew that everything was all right, and he wanted to laugh, for the two doctors were exactly like the bearded physicians in a musical comedy, both of them rubbing their hands and looking foolishly sagacious.
Dr. Dilling spoke:
"I'm sorry, old man, but it's acute appendicitis. We ought to operate. Of course you must decide, but there's no question as to what has to be done."
Babbitt did not get all the force of it. He mumbled, "Well I suppose we could get her ready in a couple o' days. Probably Ted ought to come down from the university, just in case anything happened."
Dr. Dilling growled, "Nope. If you don't want peritonitis to set in, we'll have to operate right away. I must advise it strongly. If you say go ahead, I'll 'phone for the St. Mary's ambulance at once, and we'll have her on the table in three-quarters of an hour."
"I—I Of course, I suppose you know what—But great God, man, I can't get her clothes ready and everything in two seconds, you know! And in her state, so wrought-up and weak—"
"Just throw her hair-brush and comb and tooth-brush in a bag; that's all she'll need for a day or two," said Dr. Dilling, and went to the telephone.
Babbitt galloped desperately up-stairs. He sent the frightened Tinka out of the room. He said gaily to his wife, "Well, old thing, the doc thinks maybe we better have a little operation and get it over. Just take a few minutes—not half as serious as a confinement—and you'll be all right in a jiffy."
She gripped his hand till the fingers ached. She said patiently, like a cowed child, "I'm afraid—to go into the dark, all alone!" Maturity was wiped from her eyes; they were pleading and terrified. "Will you stay with me? Darling, you don't have to go to the office now, do you? Could you just go down to the hospital with me? Could you come see me this evening—if everything's all right? You won't have to go out this evening, will you?"
He was on his knees by the bed. While she feebly ruffled his hair, he sobbed, he kissed the lawn of her sleeve, and swore, "Old honey, I love you more than anything in the world! I've kind of been worried by business and everything, but that's all over now, and I'm back again."
"Are you really? George, I was thinking, lying here, maybe it would be a good thing if I just WENT. I was wondering if anybody really needed me. Or wanted me. I was wondering what was the use of my living. I've been getting so stupid and ugly—"
"Why, you old humbug! Fishing for compliments when I ought to be packing your bag! Me, sure, I'm young and handsome and a regular village cut-up and—" He could not go on. He sobbed again; and in muttered incoherencies they found each other.
As he packed, his brain was curiously clear and swift. He'd have no more wild evenings, he realized. He admitted that he would regret them. A little grimly he perceived that this had been his last despairing fling before the paralyzed contentment of middle-age. Well, and he grinned impishly, "it was one doggone good party while it lasted!" And—how much was the operation going to cost? "I ought to have fought that out with Dilling. But no, damn it, I don't care how much it costs!"
The motor ambulance was at the door. Even in his grief the Babbitt who admired all technical excellences was interested in the kindly skill with which the attendants slid Mrs. Babbitt upon a stretcher and carried her down-stairs. The ambulance was a huge, suave, varnished, white thing. Mrs. Babbitt moaned, "It frightens me. It's just like a hearse, just like being put in a hearse. I want you to stay with me."
"I'll be right up front with the driver," Babbitt promised.
"No, I want you to stay inside with me." To the attendants: "Can't he be inside?"
"Sure, ma'am, you bet. There's a fine little camp-stool in there," the older attendant said, with professional pride.
He sat beside her in that traveling cabin with its cot, its stool, its active little electric radiator, and its quite unexplained calendar, displaying a girl eating cherries, and the name of an enterprising grocer. But as he flung out his hand in hopeless cheerfulness it touched the radiator, and he squealed:
"Why, George Babbitt, I won't have you cursing and swearing and blaspheming!"
"I know, awful sorry but—Gosh all fish-hooks, look how I burned my hand! Gee whiz, it hurts! It hurts like the mischief! Why, that damn radiator is hot as—it's hot as—it's hotter 'n the hinges of Hades! Look! You can see the mark!"
So, as they drove up to St. Mary's Hospital, with the nurses already laying out the instruments for an operation to save her life, it was she who consoled him and kissed the place to make it well, and though he tried to be gruff and mature, he yielded to her and was glad to be babied.
The ambulance whirled under the hooded carriage-entrance of the hospital, and instantly he was reduced to a zero in the nightmare succession of cork-floored halls, endless doors open on old women sitting up in bed, an elevator, the anesthetizing room, a young interne contemptuous of husbands. He was permitted to kiss his wife; he saw a thin dark nurse fit the cone over her mouth and nose; he stiffened at a sweet and treacherous odor; then he was driven out, and on a high stool in a laboratory he sat dazed, longing to see her once again, to insist that he had always loved her, had never for a second loved anybody else or looked at anybody else. In the laboratory he was conscious only of a decayed object preserved in a bottle of yellowing alcohol. It made him very sick, but he could not take his eyes from it. He was more aware of it than of waiting. His mind floated in abeyance, coming back always to that horrible bottle. To escape it he opened the door to the right, hoping to find a sane and business-like office. He realized that he was looking into the operating-room; in one glance he took in Dr. Dilling, strange in white gown and bandaged head, bending over the steel table with its screws and wheels, then nurses holding basins and cotton sponges, and a swathed thing, just a lifeless chin and a mound of white in the midst of which was a square of sallow flesh with a gash a little bloody at the edges, protruding from the gash a cluster of forceps like clinging parasites.
He shut the door with haste. It may be that his frightened repentance of the night and morning had not eaten in, but this dehumanizing interment of her who had been so pathetically human shook him utterly, and as he crouched again on the high stool in the laboratory he swore faith to his wife . . . to Zenith . . . to business efficiency . . . to the Boosters' Club . . . to every faith of the Clan of Good Fellows.
Then a nurse was soothing, "All over! Perfect success! She'll come out fine! She'll be out from under the anesthetic soon, and you can see her."
He found her on a curious tilted bed, her face an unwholesome yellow but her purple lips moving slightly. Then only did he really believe that she was alive. She was muttering. He bent, and heard her sighing, "Hard get real maple syrup for pancakes." He laughed inexhaustibly; he beamed on the nurse and proudly confided, "Think of her talking about maple syrup! By golly, I'm going to go and order a hundred gallons of it, right from Vermont!"
She was out of the hospital in seventeen days. He went to see her each afternoon, and in their long talks they drifted back to intimacy. Once he hinted something of his relations to Tanis and the Bunch, and she was inflated by the view that a Wicked Woman had captivated her poor George.
If once he had doubted his neighbors and the supreme charm of the Good Fellows, he was convinced now. You didn't, he noted, "see Seneca Doane coming around with any flowers or dropping in to chat with the Missus," but Mrs. Howard Littlefield brought to the hospital her priceless wine jelly (flavored with real wine); Orville Jones spent hours in picking out the kind of novels Mrs. Babbitt liked—nice love stories about New York millionaries and Wyoming cowpunchers; Louetta Swanson knitted a pink bed-jacket; Sidney Finkelstein and his merry brown-eyed flapper of a wife selected the prettiest nightgown in all the stock of Parcher and Stein.
All his friends ceased whispering about him, suspecting him. At the Athletic Club they asked after her daily. Club members whose names he did not know stopped him to inquire, "How's your good lady getting on?" Babbitt felt that he was swinging from bleak uplands down into the rich warm air of a valley pleasant with cottages.
One noon Vergil Gunch suggested, "You planning to be at the hospital about six? The wife and I thought we'd drop in." They did drop in. Gunch was so humorous that Mrs. Babbitt said he must "stop making her laugh because honestly it was hurting her incision." As they passed down the hall Gunch demanded amiably, "George, old scout, you were soreheaded about something, here a while back. I don't know why, and it's none of my business. But you seem to be feeling all hunky-dory again, and why don't you come join us in the Good Citizens' League, old man? We have some corking times together, and we need your advice."
Then did Babbitt, almost tearful with joy at being coaxed instead of bullied, at being permitted to stop fighting, at being able to desert without injuring his opinion of himself, cease utterly to be a domestic revolutionist. He patted Gunch's shoulder, and next day he became a member of the Good Citizens' League.
Within two weeks no one in the League was more violent regarding the wickedness of Seneca Doane, the crimes of labor unions, the perils of immigration, and the delights of golf, morality, and bank-accounts than was George F. Babbitt.
THE Good Citizens' League had spread through the country, but nowhere was it so effective and well esteemed as in cities of the type of Zenith, commercial cities of a few hundred thousand inhabitants, most of which—though not all—lay inland, against a background of cornfields and mines and of small towns which depended upon them for mortgage-loans, table-manners, art, social philosophy and millinery.
To the League belonged most of the prosperous citizens of Zenith. They were not all of the kind who called themselves "Regular Guys." Besides these hearty fellows, these salesmen of prosperity, there were the aristocrats, that is, the men who were richer or had been rich for more generations: the presidents of banks and of factories, the land-owners, the corporation lawyers, the fashionable doctors, and the few young-old men who worked not at all but, reluctantly remaining in Zenith, collected luster-ware and first editions as though they were back in Paris. All of them agreed that the working-classes must be kept in their place; and all of them perceived that American Democracy did not imply any equality of wealth, but did demand a wholesome sameness of thought, dress, painting, morals, and vocabulary.
In this they were like the ruling-class of any other country, particularly of Great Britain, but they differed in being more vigorous and in actually trying to produce the accepted standards which all classes, everywhere, desire, but usually despair of realizing.
The longest struggle of the Good Citizens' League was against the Open Shop—which was secretly a struggle against all union labor. Accompanying it was an Americanization Movement, with evening classes in English and history and economics, and daily articles in the newspapers, so that newly arrived foreigners might learn that the true-blue and one hundred per cent. American way of settling labor-troubles was for workmen to trust and love their employers.
The League was more than generous in approving other organizations which agreed with its aims. It helped the Y.M. C.A. to raise a two-hundred-thousand-dollar fund for a new building. Babbitt, Vergil Gunch, Sidney Finkelstein, and even Charles McKelvey told the spectators at movie theaters how great an influence for manly Christianity the "good old Y." had been in their own lives; and the hoar and mighty Colonel Rutherford Snow, owner of the Advocate-Times, was photographed clasping the hand of Sheldon Smeeth of the Y.M.C.A. It is true that afterward, when Smeeth lisped, "You must come to one of our prayer-meetings," the ferocious Colonel bellowed, "What the hell would I do that for? I've got a bar of my own," but this did not appear in the public prints.
The League was of value to the American Legion at a time when certain of the lesser and looser newspapers were criticizing that organization of veterans of the Great War. One evening a number of young men raided the Zenith Socialist Headquarters, burned its records, beat the office staff, and agreeably dumped desks out of the window. All of the newspapers save the Advocate-Times and the Evening Advocate attributed this valuable but perhaps hasty direct-action to the American Legion. Then a flying squadron from the Good Citizens' League called on the unfair papers and explained that no ex-soldier could possibly do such a thing, and the editors saw the light, and retained their advertising. When Zenith's lone Conscientious Objector came home from prison and was righteously run out of town, the newspapers referred to the perpetrators as an "unidentified mob."
In all the activities and triumphs of the Good Citizens' League Babbitt took part, and completely won back to self-respect, placidity, and the affection of his friends. But he began to protest, "Gosh, I've done my share in cleaning up the city. I want to tend to business. Think I'll just kind of slacken up on this G.C.L. stuff now."
He had returned to the church as he had returned to the Boosters' Club. He had even endured the lavish greeting which Sheldon Smeeth gave him. He was worried lest during his late discontent he had imperiled his salvation. He was not quite sure there was a Heaven to be attained, but Dr. John Jennison Drew said there was, and Babbitt was not going to take a chance.
One evening when he was walking past Dr. Drew's parsonage he impulsively went in and found the pastor in his study.
"Jus' minute—getting 'phone call," said Dr. Drew in businesslike tones, then, aggressively, to the telephone: "'Lo—'lo! This Berkey and Hannis? Reverend Drew speaking. Where the dickens is the proof for next Sunday's calendar? Huh? Y' ought to have it here. Well, I can't help it if they're ALL sick! I got to have it to-night. Get an A.D.T. boy and shoot it up here quick."
He turned, without slackening his briskness. "Well, Brother Babbitt, what c'n I do for you?"
"I just wanted to ask—Tell you how it is, dominie: Here a while ago I guess I got kind of slack. Took a few drinks and so on. What I wanted to ask is: How is it if a fellow cuts that all out and comes back to his senses? Does it sort of, well, you might say, does it score against him in the long run?"
The Reverend Dr. Drew was suddenly interested. "And, uh, brother—the other things, too? Women?"
"No, practically, you might say, practically not at all."
"Don't hesitate to tell me, brother! That's what I'm here for. Been going on joy-rides? Squeezing girls in cars?" The reverend eyes glistened.
"Well, I'll tell you. I've got a deputation from the Don't Make Prohibition a Joke Association coming to see me in a quarter of an hour, and one from the Anti-Birth-Control Union at a quarter of ten." He busily glanced at his watch. "But I can take five minutes off and pray with you. Kneel right down by your chair, brother. Don't be ashamed to seek the guidance of God."
Babbitt's scalp itched and he longed to flee, but Dr. Drew had already flopped down beside his desk-chair and his voice had changed from rasping efficiency to an unctuous familiarity with sin and with the Almighty. Babbitt also knelt, while Drew gloated:
"O Lord, thou seest our brother here, who has been led astray by manifold temptations. O Heavenly Father, make his heart to be pure, as pure as a little child's. Oh, let him know again the joy of a manly courage to abstain from evil—"
Sheldon Smeeth came frolicking into the study. At the sight of the two men he smirked, forgivingly patted Babbitt on the shoulder, and knelt beside him, his arm about him, while he authorized Dr. Drew's imprecations with moans of "Yes, Lord! Help our brother, Lord!"
Though he was trying to keep his eyes closed, Babbitt squinted between his fingers and saw the pastor glance at his watch as he concluded with a triumphant, "And let him never be afraid to come to Us for counsel and tender care, and let him know that the church can lead him as a little lamb."
Dr. Drew sprang up, rolled his eyes in the general direction of Heaven, chucked his watch into his pocket, and demanded, "Has the deputation come yet, Sheldy?"
"Yep, right outside," Sheldy answered, with equal liveliness; then, caressingly, to Babbitt, "Brother, if it would help, I'd love to go into the next room and pray with you while Dr. Drew is receiving the brothers from the Don't Make Prohibition a Joke Association."
"No—no thanks—can't take the time!" yelped Babbitt, rushing toward the door.
Thereafter he was often seen at the Chatham Road Presbyterian Church, but it is recorded that he avoided shaking hands with the pastor at the door.
If his moral fiber had been so weakened by rebellion that he was not quite dependable in the more rigorous campaigns of the Good Citizens' League nor quite appreciative of the church, yet there was no doubt of the joy with which Babbitt returned to the pleasures of his home and of the Athletic Club, the Boosters, the Elks.
Verona and Kenneth Escott were eventually and hesitatingly married. For the wedding Babbitt was dressed as carefully as was Verona; he was crammed into the morning-coat he wore to teas thrice a year; and with a certain relief, after Verona and Kenneth had driven away in a limousine, he returned to the house, removed the morning coat, sat with his aching feet up on the davenport, and reflected that his wife and he could have the living-room to themselves now, and not have to listen to Verona and Kenneth worrying, in a cultured collegiate manner, about minimum wages and the Drama League.
But even this sinking into peace was less consoling than his return to being one of the best-loved men in the Boosters' Club.
President Willis Ijams began that Boosters' Club luncheon by standing quiet and staring at them so unhappily that they feared he was about to announce the death of a Brother Booster. He spoke slowly then, and gravely:
"Boys, I have something shocking to reveal to you; something terrible about one of our own members."
Several Boosters, including Babbitt, looked disconcerted.
"A knight of the grip, a trusted friend of mine, recently made a trip up-state, and in a certain town, where a certain Booster spent his boyhood, he found out something which can no longer be concealed. In fact, he discovered the inward nature of a man whom we have accepted as a Real Guy and as one of us. Gentlemen, I cannot trust my voice to say it, so I have written it down."
He uncovered a large blackboard and on it, in huge capitals, was the legend:
George Follansbee Babbitt—oh you Folly!
The Boosters cheered, they laughed, they wept, they threw rolls at Babbitt, they cried, "Speech, speech! Oh you Folly!"
President Ijams continued:
"That, gentlemen, is the awful thing Georgie Babbitt has been concealing all these years, when we thought he was just plain George F. Now I want you to tell us, taking it in turn, what you've always supposed the F. stood for."
Flivver, they suggested, and Frog-face and Flathead and Farinaceous and Freezone and Flapdoodle and Foghorn. By the joviality of their insults Babbitt knew that he had been taken back to their hearts, and happily he rose.
"Boys, I've got to admit it. I've never worn a wrist-watch, or parted my name in the middle, but I will confess to 'Follansbee.' My only justification is that my old dad—though otherwise he was perfectly sane, and packed an awful wallop when it came to trimming the City Fellers at checkers—named me after the family doc, old Dr. Ambrose Follansbee. I apologize, boys. In my next what-d'you-call-it I'll see to it that I get named something really practical—something that sounds swell and yet is good and virile—something, in fact, like that grand old name so familiar to every household—that bold and almost overpowering name, Willis Jimjams Ijams!"
He knew by the cheer that he was secure again and popular; he knew that he would no more endanger his security and popularity by straying from the Clan of Good Fellows.
Henry Thompson dashed into the office, clamoring, "George! Big news! Jake Offutt says the Traction Bunch are dissatisfied with the way Sanders, Torrey and Wing handled their last deal, and they're willing to dicker with us!"
Babbitt was pleased in the realization that the last scar of his rebellion was healed, yet as he drove home he was annoyed by such background thoughts as had never weakened him in his days of belligerent conformity. He discovered that he actually did not consider the Traction group quite honest. "Well, he'd carry out one more deal for them, but as soon as it was practicable, maybe as soon as old Henry Thompson died, he'd break away from all association from them. He was forty-eight; in twelve years he'd be sixty; he wanted to leave a clean business to his grandchildren. Course there was a lot of money in negotiating for the Traction people, and a fellow had to look at things in a practical way, only—" He wriggled uncomfortably. He wanted to tell the Traction group what he thought of them. "Oh, he couldn't do it, not now. If he offended them this second time, they would crush him. But—"
He was conscious that his line of progress seemed confused. He wondered what he would do with his future. He was still young; was he through with all adventuring? He felt that he had been trapped into the very net from which he had with such fury escaped and, supremest jest of all, been made to rejoice in the trapping.
"They've licked me; licked me to a finish!" he whimpered.
The house was peaceful, that evening, and he enjoyed a game of pinochle with his wife. He indignantly told the Tempter that he was content to do things in the good old fashioned way. The day after, he went to see the purchasing-agent of the Street Traction Company and they made plans for the secret purchase of lots along the Evanston Road. But as he drove to his office he struggled, "I'm going to run things and figure out things to suit myself—when I retire."
Ted had come down from the University for the week-end. Though he no longer spoke of mechanical engineering and though he was reticent about his opinion of his instructors, he seemed no more reconciled to college, and his chief interest was his wireless telephone set.
On Saturday evening he took Eunice Littlefield to a dance at Devon Woods. Babbitt had a glimpse of her, bouncing in the seat of the car, brilliant in a scarlet cloak over a frock of thinnest creamy silk. They two had not returned when the Babbitts went to bed, at half-past eleven. At a blurred indefinite time of late night Babbitt was awakened by the ring of the telephone and gloomily crawled down-stairs. Howard Littlefield was speaking:
"George, Euny isn't back yet. Is Ted?"
"No—at least his door is open—"
"They ought to be home. Eunice said the dance would be over at midnight. What's the name of those people where they're going?"
"Why, gosh, tell the truth, I don't know, Howard. It's some classmate of Ted's, out in Devon Woods. Don't see what we can do. Wait, I'll skip up and ask Myra if she knows their name."
Babbitt turned on the light in Ted's room. It was a brown boyish room; disordered dresser, worn books, a high-school pennant, photographs of basket-ball teams and baseball teams. Ted was decidedly not there.
Mrs. Babbitt, awakened, irritably observed that she certainly did not know the name of Ted's host, that it was late, that Howard Littlefield was but little better than a born fool, and that she was sleepy. But she remained awake and worrying while Babbitt, on the sleeping-porch, struggled back into sleep through the incessant soft rain of her remarks. It was after dawn when he was aroused by her shaking him and calling "George! George!" in something like horror.
"Wha—wha—what is it?"
"Come here quick and see. Be quiet!"
She led him down the hall to the door of Ted's room and pushed it gently open. On the worn brown rug he saw a froth of rose-colored chiffon lingerie; on the sedate Morris chair a girl's silver slipper. And on the pillows were two sleepy heads—Ted's and Eunice's.
Ted woke to grin, and to mutter with unconvincing defiance, "Good morning! Let me introduce my wife—Mrs. Theodore Roosevelt Eunice Littlefield Babbitt, Esquiress."
"Good God!" from Babbitt, and from his wife a long wailing, "You've gone and—"
"We got married last evening. Wife! Sit up and say a pretty good morning to mother-in-law."
But Eunice hid her shoulders and her charming wild hair under the pillow.
By nine o'clock the assembly which was gathered about Ted and Eunice in the living-room included Mr. and Mrs. George Babbitt, Dr. and Mrs. Howard Littlefield, Mr. and Mrs. Kenneth Escott, Mr. and Mrs. Henry T. Thompson, and Tinka Babbitt, who was the only pleased member of the inquisition.
A crackling shower of phrases filled the room:
"At their age—" "Ought to be annulled—" "Never heard of such a thing in—" "Fault of both of them and—" "Keep it out of the papers—" "Ought to be packed off to school—" "Do something about it at once, and what I say is—" "Damn good old-fashioned spanking—"
Worst of them all was Verona. "TED! Some way MUST be found to make you understand how dreadfully SERIOUS this is, instead of standing AROUND with that silly foolish SMILE on your face!"
He began to revolt. "Gee whittakers, Rone, you got married yourself, didn't you?"
"That's entirely different."
"You bet it is! They didn't have to work on Eu and me with a chain and tackle to get us to hold hands!"
"Now, young man, we'll have no more flippancy," old Henry Thompson ordered. "You listen to me."
"You listen to Grandfather!" said Verona.
"Yes, listen to your Grandfather!" said Mrs. Babbitt.
"Ted, you listen to Mr. Thompson!" said Howard Littlefield.
"Oh, for the love o' Mike, I am listening!" Ted shouted. "But you look here, all of you! I'm getting sick and tired of being the corpse in this post mortem! If you want to kill somebody, go kill the preacher that married us! Why, he stung me five dollars, and all the money I had in the world was six dollars and two bits. I'm getting just about enough of being hollered at!"
A new voice, booming, authoritative, dominated the room. It was Babbitt. "Yuh, there's too darn many putting in their oar! Rone, you dry up. Howard and I are still pretty strong, and able to do our own cussing. Ted, come into the dining-room and we'll talk this over."
In the dining-room, the door firmly closed, Babbitt walked to his son, put both hands on his shoulders. "You're more or less right. They all talk too much. Now what do you plan to do, old man?"
"Gosh, dad, are you really going to be human?"
"Well, I—Remember one time you called us 'the Babbitt men' and said we ought to stick together? I want to. I don't pretend to think this isn't serious. The way the cards are stacked against a young fellow to-day, I can't say I approve of early marriages. But you couldn't have married a better girl than Eunice; and way I figure it, Littlefield is darn lucky to get a Babbitt for a son-in-law! But what do you plan to do? Course you could go right ahead with the U., and when you'd finished—"
"Dad, I can't stand it any more. Maybe it's all right for some fellows. Maybe I'll want to go back some day. But me, I want to get into mechanics. I think I'd get to be a good inventor. There's a fellow that would give me twenty dollars a week in a factory right now."
"Well—" Babbitt crossed the floor, slowly, ponderously, seeming a little old. "I've always wanted you to have a college degree." He meditatively stamped across the floor again. "But I've never—Now, for heaven's sake, don't repeat this to your mother, or she'd remove what little hair I've got left, but practically, I've never done a single thing I've wanted to in my whole life! I don't know 's I've accomplished anything except just get along. I figure out I've made about a quarter of an inch out of a possible hundred rods. Well, maybe you'll carry things on further. I don't know. But I do get a kind of sneaking pleasure out of the fact that you knew what you wanted to do and did it. Well, those folks in there will try to bully you, and tame you down. Tell 'em to go to the devil! I'll back you. Take your factory job, if you want to. Don't be scared of the family. No, nor all of Zenith. Nor of yourself, the way I've been. Go ahead, old man! The world is yours!"
Arms about each other's shoulders, the Babbitt men marched into the living-room and faced the swooping family.