HE was busy, from March to June. He kept himself from the bewilderment of thinking. His wife and the neighbors were generous. Every evening he played bridge or attended the movies, and the days were blank of face and silent.
In June, Mrs. Babbitt and Tinka went East, to stay with relatives, and Babbitt was free to do—he was not quite sure what.
All day long after their departure he thought of the emancipated house in which he could, if he desired, go mad and curse the gods without having to keep up a husbandly front. He considered, "I could have a reg'lar party to-night; stay out till two and not do any explaining afterwards. Cheers!" He telephoned to Vergil Gunch, to Eddie Swanson. Both of them were engaged for the evening, and suddenly he was bored by having to take so much trouble to be riotous.
He was silent at dinner, unusually kindly to Ted and Verona, hesitating but not disapproving when Verona stated her opinion of Kenneth Escott's opinion of Dr. John Jennison Drew's opinion of the opinions of the evolutionists. Ted was working in a garage through the summer vacation, and he related his daily triumphs: how he had found a cracked ball-race, what he had said to the Old Grouch, what he had said to the foreman about the future of wireless telephony.
Ted and Verona went to a dance after dinner. Even the maid was out. Rarely had Babbitt been alone in the house for an entire evening. He was restless. He vaguely wanted something more diverting than the newspaper comic strips to read. He ambled up to Verona's room, sat on her maidenly blue and white bed, humming and grunting in a solid-citizen manner as he examined her books: Conrad's "Rescue," a volume strangely named "Figures of Earth," poetry (quite irregular poetry, Babbitt thought) by Vachel Lindsay, and essays by H. L. Mencken—highly improper essays, making fun of the church and all the decencies. He liked none of the books. In them he felt a spirit of rebellion against niceness and solid-citizenship. These authors—and he supposed they were famous ones, too—did not seem to care about telling a good story which would enable a fellow to forget his troubles. He sighed. He noted a book, "The Three Black Pennies," by Joseph Hergesheimer. Ah, that was something like it! It would be an adventure story, maybe about counterfeiting—detectives sneaking up on the old house at night. He tucked the book under his arm, he clumped down-stairs and solemnly began to read, under the piano-lamp:
"A twilight like blue dust sifted into the shallow fold of the thickly wooded hills. It was early October, but a crisping frost had already stamped the maple trees with gold, the Spanish oaks were hung with patches of wine red, the sumach was brilliant in the darkening underbrush. A pattern of wild geese, flying low and unconcerned above the hills, wavered against the serene ashen evening. Howat Penny, standing in the comparative clearing of a road, decided that the shifting regular flight would not come close enough for a shot.... He had no intention of hunting the geese. With the drooping of day his keenness had evaporated; an habitual indifference strengthened, permeating him...."
There it was again: discontent with the good common ways. Babbitt laid down the book and listened to the stillness. The inner doors of the house were open. He heard from the kitchen the steady drip of the refrigerator, a rhythm demanding and disquieting. He roamed to the window. The summer evening was foggy and, seen through the wire screen, the street lamps were crosses of pale fire. The whole world was abnormal. While he brooded, Verona and Ted came in and went up to bed. Silence thickened in the sleeping house. He put on his hat, his respectable derby, lighted a cigar, and walked up and down before the house, a portly, worthy, unimaginative figure, humming "Silver Threads among the Gold." He casually considered, "Might call up Paul." Then he remembered. He saw Paul in a jailbird's uniform, but while he agonized he didn't believe the tale. It was part of the unreality of this fog-enchanted evening.
If she were here Myra would be hinting, "Isn't it late, Georgie?" He tramped in forlorn and unwanted freedom. Fog hid the house now. The world was uncreated, a chaos without turmoil or desire.
Through the mist came a man at so feverish a pace that he seemed to dance with fury as he entered the orb of glow from a street-lamp. At each step he brandished his stick and brought it down with a crash. His glasses on their broad pretentious ribbon banged against his stomach. Babbitt incredulously saw that it was Chum Frink.
Frink stopped, focused his vision, and spoke with gravity:
"There's another fool. George Babbitt. Lives for renting howshes—houses. Know who I am? I'm traitor to poetry. I'm drunk. I'm talking too much. I don't care. Know what I could 've been? I could 've been a Gene Field or a James Whitcomb Riley. Maybe a Stevenson. I could 've. Whimsies. 'Magination. Lissen. Lissen to this. Just made it up:
Hear that? Whimzh—whimsy. I made that up. I don't know what it means! Beginning good verse. Chile's Garden Verses. And whadi write? Tripe! Cheer-up poems. All tripe! Could have written—Too late!"
He darted on with an alarming plunge, seeming always to pitch forward yet never quite falling. Babbitt would have been no more astonished and no less had a ghost skipped out of the fog carrying his head. He accepted Frink with vast apathy; he grunted, "Poor boob!" and straightway forgot him.
He plodded into the house, deliberately went to the refrigerator and rifled it. When Mrs. Babbitt was at home, this was one of the major household crimes. He stood before the covered laundry tubs, eating a chicken leg and half a saucer of raspberry jelly, and grumbling over a clammy cold boiled potato. He was thinking. It was coming to him that perhaps all life as he knew it and vigorously practised it was futile; that heaven as portrayed by the Reverend Dr. John Jennison Drew was neither probable nor very interesting; that he hadn't much pleasure out of making money; that it was of doubtful worth to rear children merely that they might rear children who would rear children. What was it all about? What did he want?
He blundered into the living-room, lay on the davenport, hands behind his head.
What did he want? Wealth? Social position? Travel? Servants? Yes, but only incidentally.
"I give it up," he sighed.
But he did know that he wanted the presence of Paul Riesling; and from that he stumbled into the admission that he wanted the fairy girl—in the flesh. If there had been a woman whom he loved, he would have fled to her, humbled his forehead on her knees.
He thought of his stenographer, Miss McGoun. He thought of the prettiest of the manicure girls at the Hotel Thornleigh barber shop. As he fell asleep on the davenport he felt that he had found something in life, and that he had made a terrifying, thrilling break with everything that was decent and normal.
He had forgotten, next morning, that he was a conscious rebel, but he was irritable in the office and at the eleven o'clock drive of telephone calls and visitors he did something he had often desired and never dared: he left the office without excuses to those slave-drivers his employees, and went to the movies. He enjoyed the right to be alone. He came out with a vicious determination to do what he pleased.
As he approached the Roughnecks' Table at the club, everybody laughed.
"Well, here's the millionaire!" said Sidney Finkelstein.
"Yes, I saw him in his Locomobile!" said Professor Pumphrey.
"Gosh, it must be great to be a smart guy like Georgie!" moaned Vergil Gunch. "He's probably stolen all of Dorchester. I'd hate to leave a poor little defenseless piece of property lying around where he could get his hooks on it!"
They had, Babbitt perceived, "something on him." Also, they "had their kidding clothes on." Ordinarily he would have been delighted at the honor implied in being chaffed, but he was suddenly touchy. He grunted, "Yuh, sure; maybe I'll take you guys on as office boys!" He was impatient as the jest elaborately rolled on to its denouement.
"Of course he may have been meeting a girl," they said, and "No, I think he was waiting for his old roommate, Sir Jerusalem Doak."
He exploded, "Oh, spring it, spring it, you boneheads! What's the great joke?"
"Hurray! George is peeved!" snickered Sidney Finkelstein, while a grin went round the table. Gunch revealed the shocking truth: He had seen Babbitt coming out of a motion-picture theater—at noon!
They kept it up. With a hundred variations, a hundred guffaws, they said that he had gone to the movies during business-hours. He didn't so much mind Gunch, but he was annoyed by Sidney Finkelstein, that brisk, lean, red-headed explainer of jokes. He was bothered, too, by the lump of ice in his glass of water. It was too large; it spun round and burned his nose when he tried to drink. He raged that Finkelstein was like that lump of ice. But he won through; he kept up his banter till they grew tired of the superlative jest and turned to the great problems of the day.
He reflected, "What's the matter with me to-day? Seems like I've got an awful grouch. Only they talk so darn much. But I better steer careful and keep my mouth shut."
As they lighted their cigars he mumbled, "Got to get back," and on a chorus of "If you WILL go spending your mornings with lady ushers at the movies!" he escaped. He heard them giggling. He was embarrassed. While he was most bombastically agreeing with the coat-man that the weather was warm, he was conscious that he was longing to run childishly with his troubles to the comfort of the fairy child.
He kept Miss McGoun after he had finished dictating. He searched for a topic which would warm her office impersonality into friendliness.
"Where you going on your vacation?" he purred.
"I think I'll go up-state to a farm do you want me to have the Siddons lease copied this afternoon?"
"Oh, no hurry about it.... I suppose you have a great time when you get away from us cranks in the office."
She rose and gathered her pencils. "Oh, nobody's cranky here I think I can get it copied after I do the letters."
She was gone. Babbitt utterly repudiated the view that he had been trying to discover how approachable was Miss McGoun. "Course! knew there was nothing doing!" he said.
Eddie Swanson, the motor-car agent who lived across the street from Babbitt, was giving a Sunday supper. His wife Louetta, young Louetta who loved jazz in music and in clothes and laughter, was at her wildest. She cried, "We'll have a real party!" as she received the guests. Babbitt had uneasily felt that to many men she might be alluring; now he admitted that to himself she was overwhelmingly alluring. Mrs. Babbitt had never quite approved of Louetta; Babbitt was glad that she was not here this evening.
He insisted on helping Louetta in the kitchen: taking the chicken croquettes from the warming-oven, the lettuce sandwiches from the ice-box. He held her hand, once, and she depressingly didn't notice it. She caroled, "You're a good little mother's-helper, Georgie. Now trot in with the tray and leave it on the side-table."
He wished that Eddie Swanson would give them cocktails; that Louetta would have one. He wanted—Oh, he wanted to be one of these Bohemians you read about. Studio parties. Wild lovely girls who were independent. Not necessarily bad. Certainly not! But not tame, like Floral Heights. How he'd ever stood it all these years—
Eddie did not give them cocktails. True, they supped with mirth, and with several repetitions by Orville Jones of "Any time Louetta wants to come sit on my lap I'll tell this sandwich to beat it!" but they were respectable, as befitted Sunday evening. Babbitt had discreetly preempted a place beside Louetta on the piano bench. While he talked about motors, while he listened with a fixed smile to her account of the film she had seen last Wednesday, while he hoped that she would hurry up and finish her description of the plot, the beauty of the leading man, and the luxury of the setting, he studied her. Slim waist girdled with raw silk, strong brows, ardent eyes, hair parted above a broad forehead—she meant youth to him and a charm which saddened. He thought of how valiant a companion she would be on a long motor tour, exploring mountains, picnicking in a pine grove high above a valley. Her frailness touched him; he was angry at Eddie Swanson for the incessant family bickering. All at once he identified Louetta with the fairy girl. He was startled by the conviction that they had always had a romantic attraction for each other.
"I suppose you're leading a simply terrible life, now you're a widower," she said.
"You bet! I'm a bad little fellow and proud of it. Some evening you slip Eddie some dope in his coffee and sneak across the road and I'll show you how to mix a cocktail," he roared.
"Well, now, I might do it! You never can tell!"
"Well, whenever you're ready, you just hang a towel out of the attic window and I'll jump for the gin!"
Every one giggled at this naughtiness. In a pleased way Eddie Swanson stated that he would have a physician analyze his coffee daily. The others were diverted to a discussion of the more agreeable recent murders, but Babbitt drew Louetta back to personal things:
"That's the prettiest dress I ever saw in my life."
"Do you honestly like it?"
"Like it? Why, say, I'm going to have Kenneth Escott put a piece in the paper saying that the swellest dressed woman in the U. S. is Mrs. E. Louetta Swanson."
"Now, you stop teasing me!" But she beamed. "Let's dance a little. George, you've got to dance with me."
Even as he protested, "Oh, you know what a rotten dancer I am!" he was lumbering to his feet.
"I'll teach you. I can teach anybody."
Her eyes were moist, her voice was jagged with excitement. He was convinced that he had won her. He clasped her, conscious of her smooth warmth, and solemnly he circled in a heavy version of the one-step. He bumped into only one or two people. "Gosh, I'm not doing so bad; hittin' 'em up like a regular stage dancer!" he gloated; and she answered busily, "Yes—yes—I told you I could teach anybody—DON'T TAKE SUCH LONG STEPS!"
For a moment he was robbed of confidence; with fearful concentration he sought to keep time to the music. But he was enveloped again by her enchantment. "She's got to like me; I'll make her!" he vowed. He tried to kiss the lock beside her ear. She mechanically moved her head to avoid it, and mechanically she murmured, "Don't!"
For a moment he hated her, but after the moment he was as urgent as ever. He danced with Mrs. Orville Jones, but he watched Louetta swooping down the length of the room with her husband. "Careful! You're getting foolish!" he cautioned himself, the while he hopped and bent his solid knees in dalliance with Mrs. Jones, and to that worthy lady rumbled, "Gee, it's hot!" Without reason, he thought of Paul in that shadowy place where men never dance. "I'm crazy to-night; better go home," he worried, but he left Mrs. Jones and dashed to Louetta's lovely side, demanding, "The next is mine."
"Oh, I'm so hot; I'm not going to dance this one."
"Then," boldly, "come out and sit on the porch and get all nice and cool."
In the tender darkness, with the clamor in the house behind them, he resolutely took her hand. She squeezed his once, then relaxed.
"Louetta! I think you're the nicest thing I know!"
"Well, I think you're very nice."
"Do you? You got to like me! I'm so lonely!"
"Oh, you'll be all right when your wife comes home."
"No, I'm always lonely."
She clasped her hands under her chin, so that he dared not touch her. He sighed:
"When I feel punk and—" He was about to bring in the tragedy of Paul, but that was too sacred even for the diplomacy of love. "—when I get tired out at the office and everything, I like to look across the street and think of you. Do you know I dreamed of you, one time!"
"Was it a nice dream?"
"Oh, well, they say dreams go by opposites! Now I must run in."
She was on her feet.
"Oh, don't go in yet! Please, Louetta!"
"Yes, I must. Have to look out for my guests."
"Let 'em look out for 'emselves!"
"I couldn't do that." She carelessly tapped his shoulder and slipped away.
But after two minutes of shamed and childish longing to sneak home he was snorting, "Certainly I wasn't trying to get chummy with her! Knew there was nothing doing, all the time!" and he ambled in to dance with Mrs. Orville Jones, and to avoid Louetta, virtuously and conspicuously.